Sam Mendes latest stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx in the roles of young marines serving in the 1991 gulf war.

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Anthony Swofford’s book Jarhead, an account of his time as a young Marine serving in the 1991 Gulf War, earned instant acclaim as a classic of first-person military narrative, and rightly so. American Beauty director Mendes’ film version is funny, sharp and brilliantly evokes and explains not just the culture of the US military, but the popular culture that informs it. Happily, Mendes and writer William Broyles Jr – himself a former Marine and Vietnam veteran – have tinkered little with Swofford’s vision, and the result is an exceptionally smart war movie, the more so for the relative absence of any war.

Such, however, was Operation Desert Storm – not a war, as such, but an abrupt and peremptory ass-kicking, the equivalent of Real Madrid ruthlessly slotting home 47 goals against a team of cross-eyed five-year-olds. For ground soldiers like Swofford (a terrific Jake Gyllenhaal), there was very little of interest to do, either professionally or recreationally. As a result, much of Jarhead focuses on the workaday dynamics of military life, which are captured brilliantly: the crass, overt, slightly self-mocking
Machismo which quickly becomes the default attitude; the inevitability with which any all-male environment, especially a uniformed all-male environment, turns inexorably, almost as a revolt against the absence of female company, into high camp; the in-jokes; the loneliness; the almost hysterically heightened sense of friendship.

Most impressively, Mendes and Broyles have understood the bewilderment expressed by Swofford’s book: that even the military, a milieu in which death is a daily occupational hazard, is now hopelessly infested by post-modernism. One Marine complains, upon hearing The Doors booming from a nearby speaker, that they don’t even have their own songs for their own war. The single most telling and memorable scene boldly features another film entirely, as Swofford’s comrades rev themselves for battle by humming along to Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries at a morale-inflating screening of Apocalypse Now.

By Andrew Mueller


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