I had not intended to see Jarhead. There was no particular reason not to, but there was no motivating force to make me get there either. Having now seen it, I must say that I feel much the same. At the same time, I think it was important that I see it.
The movie is a welcome addition to the war movie genre. Its over-arcing message is one of ambiguity; for the war, for the effects of war on marines, for the enemy. Unlike most war movies, we may be on a particular side but we're not entirely sure why. We hardly see the enemy, are only told he is evil and must be destroyed. I think, though I haven't the experience to back this up, that it is the most accurate war movie I've ever seen in this regard.
What the movie seems to play with is the memory of other war films. The most passionate moment may be before deployment, when the marines are watching Apocalypse Now, apparently unaware of the fact they aren't supposed to be rooting for the helicopers. And once the war begins and we are shipped with the men to the desert, the movie recalls another desert war epic, Lawrence of Arabia.
"But Kris," you'll say, "*cheesecake* reminds you of Lawrence." Hear me out.
The desert in Lawrence is multi-colored, dynamic, alive with Bedouin, camels, horses, and Omar Sharif. Lawrence falls in love with the desert. He is helping the Arabs fight the Turks, but he is also fighting himself. The movie is his love of the desert and the internal conflict prompted by that love writ large. There is suffering, but there is beauty and romance. There is blood, but there is lemonade, too. There is love and hate and the last thing one sees in Lean's desert is barren apathy.
Jarhead's desert, on the other hand, is dead. It is a lifeless, nearly contourless waste where the sky is the same color as the land and nothing can be differentiated. The only oases are caravans of slaughtered men. The only color, in fact, is provided by the oil fields burning night and day.
And this brings us to the heart of the comparison. Lawrence (in the film) is fighting for the color of the desert, for his passion. The US in Iraq was fighting for oil; the only living thing there. That flame is the only thing worth anything in that land, and Jarhead makes this overt.
But a movie which communicates such apathy to me, as a viewer, inspires nothing like the passion of the Ride of the Valkyries or Lawrence's cries of "no survivors." I especially liked Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx, but overall Gyllenhaal's Swoff was made to go through too many iterations of the marine experience for them to feel fully motivated. It was as if he was intended to stand in for every marine, and his voice over (especially at the end) did nothing to increase my understanding of him as a person. The movie felt long, and tiring, politically guarded, and in other words much like the war must have been. I would venture that this is a good representation of the Marine experience.
A good movie? Perhaps not. But still worth it.