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Jarhead (8/10)

by Tony Medley

This kind of follows the outline of “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949) in the style of “From Here to Eternity” (1953), updated for the Gulf War. Well directed by Sam Mendes from a good script by William Broyles, Jr, (himself a Marine in Vietnam) based on a book by Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal). Like “Sands” we first meet Swof as a marine recruit being abused by his Drill Sergeant. Basic Training is different for the various services. I went through Basic with the Air Force. It wasn’t fun but it wasn’t bad, either. I was lucky in that I had a great TI, Staff Sgt. Lee Helle, who allowed life to be bearable. Air Force Basic is at the top of the list (or bottom, depending on your point of view). It is clearly the easiest of all the services. Down from there, from what I know, in order, is the Coast Guard, Navy, Army, and, finally, the Marines. Basic has changed substantially for the Marines. It used to be really brutal. I understand that political correctness has moderated it some, but from what we see of what Swof goes through, and we don’t see much, it’s still pretty tough. Swof takes it with a sense of humor, which is about the only way you can take it.

After a few scenes of boot camp, Swof joins his unit, the Surveillance and Target Acquisition (STA) Platoon, which is training to be snipers under the command of Lt. Col Kazinski (Chris Cooper), who presents a compelling portrait of a Marine commander, part cheerleader, part father figure, part disciplinarian.

There is a big gap between the film and reality. Swofford joined the Marines in 1988 and was deployed to the Gulf in 1990. The film jumps him directly from Boot Camp to the deployment. In the movie it seems odd that he comes in and is immediately one of the group. There should have been some segue instead of just immediately jumping from raw recruit to seasoned soldier.

After Swof gets to his unit he hooks up with a disciplinary Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) and befriends Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), whose low key personality hides tremendous emotional turmoil just below the surface.

The best scenes in the movie involve the recreation of the oil fires that Saddam Hussein set in the Kuwaiti oil fields. The horror of these fires is captured with exceptional reality. Forget “Star Wars” and the others, these are among the best special effects I’ve ever seen. Anyone who wants to diminish Saddam Hussein’s threat to the world need only look at these oil fires which, but for the heroic Red Adair, who extinguished them, could have been the worst environmental disaster ever. As it was, they were bad enough.

Swof’s battalion, the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marines, was one of the first to reach the Arabian Desert. They were immediately deployed and then waited. This is a well done, appreciative story of what it’s like to be a Marine. Even though it can’t possibly capture the reality of life as a Marine, it does a good job of displaying the environment of a Marine and a Marine in war. These guys are gung ho and they want combat. But the life of a soldier is often boredom, deprivation of love and sex, and male bonding. It can be difficult, and full of tension. Letters from girl friends can mean a lot more than what appears on the printed page. Disputes can be blown out of proportion. Language can be profane. This movie, which, fortunately, does not seem to have a leftwing Hollywood political agenda, aided by a believable performance by Gyllenhall, does a good job of scratching the surface of what it might be like to be a Marine on war duty.

November 4, 2005