In one of the many startling and morally jagged moments that propel Jarhead, a Marine squad readies for combat by watching the ”Ride of the Valkyries” attack sequence from Apocalypse Now. As the choppers lay waste to a Vietnamese village, the Marines erupt in cheers, imitating the soldiers on screen — the tapping of a rifle magazine on a helmet. These Marines were hungry to kill, to ”get some.” Yet for any civilian who has watched that helicopter raid, it is a shock to encounter young soldiers getting off on the thrill and dismissing the horror.
Swofford, played by Jake Gyllenhaal in a remarkable performance of wildly unstable machismo, is part of an elite scout/ sniper division — highly skilled military assassins with little or no battle experience. They’re the children of frat houses, hipster war films, and high technology, and as a vision of what’s flowing through their minds, bodies, and souls, Jarhead, written by William Broyles Jr. and directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), is an eye-opening experience. Entering his barracks, Swofford, whose bristle-skulled, ”jarhead” look makes a bizarre counterpoint to his big, babyish eyes, gets pounded on by the other Marines, who duct-tape his arms to the bed and terrorize him with a mock–branding iron.
In past war films, even the psychedelic spectacles of Nam, a girl back home was a comfort, but Jarhead presents us with strutting bruiser kings for whom wives and girlfriends are a matter of squirmy anxiety — an ongoing reminder of the possibilities of adultery and betrayal. One man has to watch the entire platoon sit through his wife’s videotaped infidelity. He must have done something to deserve it, but it is still a ”love letter” from hell.
Sitting in the desert, Swofford and his comrades are waiting for combat, and bored, but their weary anticipation is also a mask for fear. Unlike the soldiers who lived the insanity of Vietnam, they know, more or less, why they’re in the Gulf: to defend the region’s oil reserves, and therefore a tangle of corporate and government interests. But that hardly eases their impotence. Jarhead is not overtly political, yet by evoking the almost surreal futility of men whose lust for victory through action is dashed, at every turn, by the tactics, terrain, and morality of the war they’re in, it sets up a powerfully resonant echo of the one we are in today.