I'm going to retreat into humility for a moment and remind myself that this blog is still waaaaaay down on everyone's list of go-to review sites, and thus begin by presuming that most of you reading are already familiar with that reliable old film school trope that movie violence is usually serving as some kind of sexual metaphor. Jason Vorhees' machete penetrates flesh of coital teens, thus standing in for the un-filmmable penetration of genitals? Jedi lightsabers buzzing out to their full length at the start of action scenes standing in for phallic erections at the start of "action" of an entirely different sort? Remember? "violence= sex" is one of the "everybody knows" nuggets of film theory, second in frequency only to "Citizen Kane just wanted his lost childhood back."
Given this, it's become a standard-issue parlor trick of film buff's to divine the "sexuality" of action films: "Top Gun," "Thelma & Louise" and "The Fast and the Furious" are "gay." "Conan" and "Braveheart" are celebrations of the dominant power of the confident sword/penis. The collective action-filmography of Mel Gibson is, well... masochistic, to put it mildly. "Jarhead" strikes a unique position in this realm by removing all but the barest vestiges of actual copulation from the action/sex metaphor and focusing solely on erection and ejaculation... or lack thereof. It takes awhile, but eventually you come to the realization that what we have here is essentially a long meditation on jerking off, with Gulf War I standing in for the actual act (though we see our share of it anyway.)
The film has been criticized by many for it's percieved lack of politics, which in most cases has meant it's unwillingness to blossom into an antiwar parable for the new Gulf War. To my mind, this is an especially silly note of critique... The film, the subject matter nor the memoir by Desert Storm vet Anthony Swofford are in no way "inherently" anti-war/anti-current-war sources at their core, and to offer a nay-vote on this film for a lack of Bush-bashing makes about as much sense as if I were to give it a poor review based on it's noticeable lack of irradiated giant dinosaurs.
In other words, what I suspect is causing so much consternation among some of my fellow reviewers is that they'd made up their minds that this was going to be one more anti-war parable for the reference pile, and have instead recieved a film that is aggressively hostile to politics and, in fact, approaches with 100% sympathy the "plight" of soldiers robbed of the chance to kill the enemy.
Jake Gyllenhall is Swofford, who heads to the Marines for reasons he outright refuses to share with us and finds himself promoted to the coveted rank of Scout Sniper. Paired with Marine-ethos-incarnate spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, stealing yet another movie's worth of scenes) under the command of a tough Sergeant (Jamie Foxx,) Swofford and his unit are deployed to the desert as part of Operation Desert Shield's first wave. They've already gone through the "Full Metal Jacket" ride at boot camp, they're tough, they're excited, they're ready and eager for their chance to kill the Iraqi enemy... and then nothing happens.
It was the push-button war, remember? The Jarheads are all ready and raring to fight, but they arrive into a war thats being fought by digital targeting systems and precision air strikes. Here, thusly, is why the film seems to be so problematic for some: "Jarhead" isn't interested in waxing the philosophical about the futility of war, or having the lack of action lead it's soldiers into realizations on the value of pacifism. It's grounded completely in the perspective of the Marines themselves, and that perspective is one of impotent rage.
They came to Iraq for the joy and the rush of using their hard-earned skills to blow the brains out of the Iraqis, and that joy... that release is being denied them. There's no attacks on the army for "making them this way," or any serious question as to whether or not turning a man into an eager killer is morally right or wrong, or even a single attempt to "humanize" the Iraqi enemy. As far as the characters are concerned, the Iraqi soldiers represent nothing more than targets which should be theirs for the killing but are instead being shelled by the air force... and the film, as it stands, does not seem to find fault in this viewpoint.
And so, while they wait for their hoped-for chance at combat action, Swofford and the others do what all of us do when we're all fired up and have nowhere to go: They start to go crazy. To describe the manner in which much of it occurs would be to spoil some great surprises and little moments. Take my word for it that, while you'll find very little "war" in this particular war-movie; action, intesity and scenes of great darkness manage to abound anyway. And just wait until you see the visual knockout of the film's entire final act, set in the surreal landscape of a desert turned black by the hellfire of burning oil wells on the horizon... and oil actually raining from the sky.
And there it is; a blunt, unashamedly phallicentric metaphor for sexual frustration doing double duty as a straight-faced lament for the soldier who's not permitted to soldier. It may not be the war movie you were expecting, and it's definately not the anti-war movie you might have been hoping for, but right now it's the one you need to see.
FINAL RATING: 9/10