War is Dinner Theatre.
Like all genres, war films have grown, matured, and in certain cases mutated as cinema history progressed. Originally, movies like All Quiet on the Western Front and La Grande Illusion portrayed war as a pageant of foolish pride, false honor, and needless sacrifice. Hollywood’s interest in the genre brought about a slew of war movies post-WWII, glutting the market with a whole bunch of stupid titles like The Devil’s Brigade and The Wild Geese. And because Hollywood doesn’t like to read, they got rid of all the modifying adjectives in the list above, relegating war films to glorified ads for paintball tournaments. Then Vietnam happened, and audiences quickly discovered that the army was not full of noble soldiers, or brave men willing to die for their country without questions, or rough, gritty warriors whose sense of duty was second only to their sense of honor. Instead, it was a bunch of illiterate rednecks and high school football stars that didn’t get college sports scholarships. War films lost what most critics would call their innocence, but I would call their thick-skulled idiocy. The stupid people moved over to sci-fi, where James Cameron and the host of agents and managers that do all his thinking for him carved out a new niche of fantasy-war films with Alien, where you could stuff all the bravura and machismo you wanted into your murderous heroes, because now they were killing aliens instead of real people or Vietnamese. For a decade or two, the war genre threatened to become interesting, but then the US bullied its way into another useless conflict, and war films were on shaky ground again. The heroics were back but without the dark undertone that allows intelligent people to watch them on anything but an ironic level. Those films that bucked the trend, like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, did so only by showing us that war was not about drama, or honor, but rather was an incredibly pretty place to sit down and write poetry for three hours.
Jarhead is aware of this progression in a simultaneously intelligent and incredibly annoying way. The film isn’t really about war at all, but not in the way you think. You think, because you’ve read eight hundred other reviews of Jarhead, that I mean it’s not a war film because nobody dies and there’s no action. That’s still, however, a war film, albeit a boring one. But what Jarhead actually is, is a film about war films. It’s about how war is theatre, how it’s nothing more than an elaborate display of sound and fury, bluster, pomp and circumstance that culminates in a massive disappointment, like a burlesque show when the lead dancer doesn’t pop golf-balls out of her vagina as an encore. The fact that the movie is about war movies is made abundantly clear in the numerous scenes of soldiers watching, referencing, and mimicking other war films, as well as the cinematographer’s repeated visual insistence that he’s seen Three Kings. It’s also reflected in the characters’ inflated and specific expectations of what war is actually like. Their experience, however, is nothing like the movies. It’s long, boring and frustrating. Unfortunately, so is Jarhead. It’s one of those films that you know you’d enjoy if you could just stay awake through the second act. So, you over compensate and over-intellectualize because you’re having flashbacks of trying to bullshit your way through a class discussion of Solaris in film school when you can barely read the tag line without falling asleep.
I swear to God, it's like a Russian sleeping pill, only it won't give you cancer.
The performances in Jarhead waffle, however, between effectively conveying the high-tension frustration of the coitus interruptus of the war experience, and coming us a both whiny and homicidal. Lead Jake Gyllenhaal succeeds, playing Anthony Swofford with all the intensity of a guy whose girlfriend just came home halfway through him jacking off to a downloaded rip of Where The Boys Aren’t 14. She didn’t catch him, but she’s not in the mood to finish him off, and she’s going to spend the rest of the night on the computer burning Sex and the City DVDs. Peter Saarsgard, on the other had, is unexpectedly weak in his role. Until now, I’d never been disappointed in his performances, as he conveys either a quiet menace or a barely buried libidinous sexuality in all his roles. This performance, however, has a little of both, which is a little disconcerting. And since both leads don’t wear their shirts very often, I kept expecting Saarsgard to snap and bugger Gyllenhall with a Marine issue combat knife. Instead, that didn’t happen, and all we get is long, contemplative scenes of washed out desert shot like the DP picked the wrong film stock, and plenty of Full Metal Jacket inspired quotes. And if that’s not frustrating, I don’t know what is.
So, let's have it. Best war films?