Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 14, 2005 10:21 pm 
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Meaninglessness

Sam Mendes' work as a director hasn't lived up to the temporarily high expectations aroused by his first movie, the 1999 American Beauty. With Kevin Spacey in one of his easiest but most successful roles, American Beauty seemed some kind of classic fin de siècle statement of white urban rebellion. But like a lot of expressions of a moment, it went stale quickly and over the past six years the rose completely lost its bloom. Mendes movie number two, 2002's Road to Perdition, another filmed graphic novel, was full of visual pizzazz but flabby in the storytelling department. It makes sense that when Mendes' adapted Anthony Swofford's eponymous novel into the 2005 Jarhead, people had lowered expectations and didn't see much there. Reviews haven't been very favorable.

And indeed Jarhead isn't the movie of the year. But it's gotten a bum rap from reviewers who have repeatedly said that it starts out in a derivative and conventional manner and winds up disintegrating into formlessness. It’s true the Full Metal Jacket drill scene and the barracks sequences early on are sub-Kubrick and even sub-Black Hawk Down. The latter was a horrifically uncritical recreation of a terrible modern battle sequence but it at least has the virtue of precision. In its early sequences establishing Swofford's training and his unit and their mission, Jarhead wavers between the generic and the specific. Again, Mendes isn't outstanding in the conventionally storytelling department. There isn't exceptionally good development of a cast of military characters -- you don't get much beyond Gyllenhaal (the narrator), Sarsgaard (his main sidekick and the boil on the bum of the unit) and Jamie Foxx (the platoon commander, an invincible staff sergeant). Chris Cooper looks too sickly and neurotic to be a brigade leader and cheerleader for the whole endlessly delayed war.

There they sit: Operation Desert Shield. The boys at the top have to make some decisions. A hundred thousand and then five hundred thousand men are set down in the sand to sit and hydrate and pee and hydrate and sit some more. They stage combats of desert spiders and they find out their girls have left them for somebody else back home.

This passage is not an outstanding performance despite the steely competence of Foxx and Gyllenhaal's seering musclebound youthful intensity -- which are all good to watch, anyway. It really is just waiting, and waiting is something Beckett was good at, but this ain't Godot.

But the war finally does come. And what matters is that Jarhead is both a very specific description of a new kind of American warfare, seen at the very lowest level of the grunts on the ground -- high tech war, fought with "precision" from above, in air strikes so skillful against an enemy so unequal that troops are almost irrelevant -- and something universal but hardly ever so truthfully represented on film: the utter meaninglessness, the sheer insignificance and emptiness of the individual soldier's role in combat.

The latter is something often alluded to, but writers and actors and directors always ruin the point by creating heroes or noble sufferers. In Jarhead nobody's a hero. Nobody even gets to fire a shot or kill anybody. After months and months of waiting, their "war" is four days long. They are sent out into a hellish landscape of sooty burning oil wells, a horizon of endless fire and blackness dotted with frozen cinder corpses out of the Dresden of Vonnegot's Mother Night, torsos and limbs of Arabs the marines lay claim to with selfish madness as "my Arab," because their only sense of triumph is the insane one of laying claim to a dead zombie object scattered on a plain. The end of this? Sniper team Sarsgaard and Gyllenhaal get one Arab officer in a tower in their sights and are ready to squeeze the trigger -- and an American officer intervenes to call in an air strike. The boys don't get one single kill -- not even a trigger-squeeze. Dazed and mad and Sarsgaard whining like a baby, they wander over a ridge to find their unit celebrating the end. "The war's over and you didn't get killed," Foxx's staff sergeant declares to them.

There has never been a better or more hallucinatory depiction of the meaninglessness of war than this. And it's also an accurate view of one angle of Operation Desert Storm. Critics have questioned why the movie isn't more comic or more ironic. What can they be thinking of? How could anything be more hideously comic or more deeply ironic than this? I was never in a war but I was in the US Army, and of all war movies I feel this is supremely my war movie. It must be a lot of other guys' war movie besides mine. The war where the grunts are sent out to kill and find only incinerated corpses is the war of the future. Movies need to show us more black bodies frozen like zombies in the sand, because there are going to be a lot more of them.

There's nothing about Gulf War Syndrome. There's nothing about the overall strategies of the war, or the hilarious chaos so brilliantly depicted in David O. Russell's Three Kings -- admittedly a much better, as well as more entertaining, movie than Jarhead. But Three Kings is ironic without really making any profound statement. Jarhead has something universal to say about the powerlessness and insignificance of 95% of all combat soldiers. And it has a very fresh flavor in its final voiceover: we will always be Gulf Warriors. They did nothing; they were geared up and trained for macho hell-raising and mayhem, and they didn't get a single kill. That's because, as Thoreau wrote, lo! men have become the tools of their tools. And when you're the tools of your tools, it's hard to be men any more.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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