Go see Jarhead.
Go see it at the next available opportunity, don’t waste time thinking about it. That’s an order.
I didn’t actually go out with the intention of seeing jarhead tonight. I had meant to go see Good Night and Good Luck, which I still intend on doing. As it happens, I made a typically lazy decision. Good Night wasn’t playing at a theatre convenient to where I was at that specific moment in time, so I opted to go see the other movie I was interested in, Sam Mendes’ Jarhead. It wasn’t really a close second, because I tend to find movies about being in the army a little alienating. It’s like watching a room full of the people I used to hate in high school from the safe side of one-way glass. Kind of entertaining, but the people inside still seem vaguely dangerous to someone like me.
I guess this change in plans is what one would call providence, because Jarhead is one of the best movies I’ve seen in years. I am going to have to see it again, because I’m still marveling at what a masterful, controlled piece it is.
Based on the memoirs of a real-life Gulf War vet (the first one), Jarhead is one of the only army films that doesn’t rely on predictable caricatures of military types to connect you to a larger story being told by the director. The story in this case is the soldiers- wide-eyed, stupidly courageous, openly vulnerable boys thrown in a situation that is completely foreign to both their civilian lives and their army training.
Don’t believe the comparisons that you here between Jarhead and other war movies, because it simply isn’t like most other war movies. There’s no war, for starters. When most people think of recent movies about war, they think about the preponderance of films about Vietnam, films that showed the full horror of war, the battles, the massacres of civilians, the gory injuries. The soldiers in Jarhead don’t see battle. They see accidents and aftermath, but the war is as bloodless as the parched desert landscape.
Because the first Gulf War, from the perspective of those of us who watched it from our sofas, was surgical, quick, painless, there is a tendency to dismiss it in comparison with the debacle that was Vietnam. The war was fought with overwhelming popular support (although some of us still walked in the streets and screamed “no blood for oil” to deaf ears), it was over quickly and it was a victory. It lacked the cultural impact of Vietnam (something which is touched on with particular finesse in the movie) and as a result, the soldiers were simply expected to come home and go back to regular life. The point the film makes, very eloquently, is that this is an impossibility. The gun, as the narrator points out, is the soldier’s phantom limb, no matter what war he has been through. It’s what he always reaches for.
In the same way that the first Gulf War was different than the Vietnam war. Jarhead is very different from films about the Vietnam war. This is no Platoon or Full Metal Jacket. It could be compared to the Deer Hunter, but the most apt comparison, in terms of war films, is to the 1930 masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front, a film that (for different reasons) managed to get inside the mind of an average soldier in a way more unsettling than any number of scenes drenched in blood.