Welcome to the Wait

There’s a moment about half-way through Sam Mendes’ adaptation of “Jarhead” where Marine Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) is in a bathroom stall, masturbating. Or, at least he’s trying to. With a new cheesecake photo of his girlfriend in hand, Swofford is trying to let go of a ton of tension but he just can’t do it. He pounds on the metal walls of the stall, screams “Fuck!” over and over, and nothing will allow him to reach the climax he so longs for.

This scene is a microcosm of the entire film.

Throughout “Jarhead,” we get scene after scene after scene of Swofford and the rest of his unit training to kill and being programmed to think that their rifle is their life. The opening narration even references this, when Swofford talks about what happens when you take the rifle out of the hands of the soldier trained to do nothing but shoot that rifle. In many ways this is a basic question, one that confronted numerous Vietnam veterans after the Vietnam War ended. But, in the context of “Jarhead,” the culture of “My rifle, my life” takes on a whole new meaning.

After a few lengthy scenes involving the training of new Marines, principal among them being Swofford and his spotter, Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), by balls-to-the-wall Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), the film settles in as a rumination on, first, Desert Shield then later Desert Storm. But more important than how these Marines get to “the Suck” is what happens to them, psychologically and emotionally, once they’re there.

The biggest problem facing the men is the potential infidelity by their wives or girlfriends back home. Some of the Marines don’t worry about it; their wives are pregnant or they’re single. Others, though, have had their hearts ripped out to the point that they erect a Wall of Shame where the men post photos of the women who cheated on them or broke up with them while deployed in the Middle East.

Swofford doesn’t think he needs to worry about his girl, back home in a California suburb. But as the film progresses, there is a creeping suspicion that she’s fooling around while he’s protecting his country. A letter here that says she’s met a good listener at work, a phone call there that has a tone of “this is the last time we’ll ever speak” to it, all add to Swofford’s growing paranoia.

To ease his mind, and indeed to ease everyone’s mind, the Marines watch old war movies, like “Apocalypse Now” and “The Deer Hunter,” and they shoot their rifle — in between patrol duty and other tasks, of course.

But what happens when you train a man to shoot his rifle, and then you take it away from him? What goes through the mind of the soldier who has his whole life ripped away from him?

These are the questions that the Marines have to face, Swofford and Troy especially, before they’re even back home. Troy, it seems, lied on his application and has a criminal record; he’ll be discharged two weeks after they get back. Swofford had a girl back home to look forward to, and now that that seems to have evaporated all he has is his rifle. And when it finally comes time to shoot, both Troy and Swofford have the weapon ripped out of their hands by an overzealous officer.

Which brings us back to that microcosm. The entire film is, to put it crudely, one big jerk off. We see these guys shoot, we see them train to kill, we see them pumped full of propaganda telling them to kill, kill, kill! Yet, not one Marine in the entire film is ever shown shooting a weapon. After all that build up, all that masturbation, we wait for a climax that ultimately never comes.

In another film, this would be cause for audiences to burn the theater down. But, somehow, Mendes accomplishes the exact opposite. By tying the lives and well-being of these men to their ability to perform, then essentially castrating them, you can’t help but feel extremely sorry for them. They were manipulated to kill, then never given the opportunity.

Another film might leave it at that, but again “Jarhead” strays from the pack. We get an epilogue of sorts of what happens to the men we’ve followed throughout the film once they return home.

When they arrive back in California, greeted with a parade, an aged, somewhat crazy, Vietnam vet hops on their bus, extolling how great of a job they did; that they made their country proud. But the looks the young Marines give to this old, broken man, and the looks he gives them, says it all—this is the life you’re given when you leave the service of your country.

That’s oversimplifying it, of course; plenty of veterans have not become broken down individuals. But the point is a valid one, and the question it raises is serious: what do you do when that rifle is taken out of your hand?

We see Swofford go home to find his girlfriend with another man, a couple of the guys go home to see their kids, some are forced into crappy, skill-less jobs, others looks like that vet on the bus, there are guys like Sykes still in the service, and some are unable to cope. Swofford, our guide through the film, ends up occupying a place somewhere between all of those things. At the beginning of “Jarhead,” he says he ended up in the Marines because he got lost on his way to college. He probably didn’t think he’d end up so off track. So how does he cope?

Mendes never gives us the answer to that question, but that’s fine. It’s best left to us to imagine where these characters end up. (Although, you could just read the book the film is based on and find out, but where’s the fun in that?) At every turn, Mendes has a reverence for these characters and their situation that betrays his British heritage. Americans rarely get a film about war and its toll so right.

But in “Jarhead” Mendes has crafted the first great Gulf War film. It only took some 15 years. His treatment of the emotional and psychological toll of not only warfare but life in the armed forces is unmatched by anyone other than maybe Oliver Stone. Mendes never gets bogged down in how this is a techno-war, the way a film like "Black Hawk Down" does, and instead concentrates on the omnipresent human-war of war. And heis willing to show his characters coming back to less than idyllic conditions, something a film like “Three Kings” doesn’t do.

“Jarhead” is a film that certainly has relevance given current events, but it’s also got the quality that is found in all the great war and war-related films, from “Grand Illusion” to “Full Metal Jacket” to “Apocalypse Now” to “Platoon”—it’s timeless. The issues “Jarhead” confronts are relevant regardless of when it takes place or when it is seen.

It’s in that that Mendes’, and the cast of the film, Gyllenhaal, Sarsgaard and Foxx especially, true accomplishment lies.