|BELIEVE THE HYPE? JARHEAD.|
The influence of Generation X (remember that term?) on the popular culture is so apparent by this point that it's hardly worth a sentence of discussion. But watching Jarhead, the surprisingly good new film by Sam Mendes, I was reminded that the children of grunge and Bill Clinton have yet to have a war movie that reflects its (OK,
our) unique temperament. After all, the Gulf War (which we now must call the first Gulf War) was the first witnessed by Gen-Xers, the first fought by people our age. Only because of the release of Jarhead do I realize how engrained that conflict is with the folks I grew up with. And now this pivotal period has been memorably rendered by, of all things, a generally overrated British director.
After a successful stage career, Mendes rode triumphantly into
movies, directing American Beauty and Road to Perdition. I found both films immaculately crafted but horribly obvious dramatically. Mendes seemed to think a great movie was an ornate, pretty box with lots of fancy trinkets, clever movements and classy little touches. He seemed, in other words, like a theater director.
And yet Jarhead, despite a few precious touches, is Mendes's most natural film. The advance buzz was that Mendes, working from Anthony Swofford's first-person account, had made a mediocre amalgam of Full Metal Jacket and Three Kings, lots of waiting around with the soldiers, not much actual combat. That's all true, but I think Jarhead improves on those two earlier models by being less pronounced in its intentions. War movies are almost inherently anti-war films -- we are meant to be horrified or bludgeoned by the senseless carnage. But what Mendes does is adopt a very Gen-X perspective on combat, one that honors the best of our age group while downplaying the societal stereotypes.
As portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, the film's Anthony Swofford is a vaguely smartass kid from a dysfunctional family who doesn't have much of a future for himself. With that the case, might as well go into the military, right? He's bright but directionless -- a slacker, if you will. But this isn't Platoon, where the nowhere protagonist learns life lessons from combat -- Swofford got a successful memoir out of the experience of going to war, but the movie doesn't pretend that he traveled an emotional character arc because of the ordeal. He remains directionless when he returns from the suck.
Instead, Jarhead (like so much postmodern culture embraced by Gen-Xers) plays out as a reinvention of the war film, especially the recent ones. Three Kings was about the same war, but this new movie has none of David O. Russell's raging protest against American foreign policy; instead, the soldiers of Jarhead have a faint sense that too much of their mission involves protecting businessmen's oil, but not enough that they're going to go out of their way to stop it. (It should also be noted that Mendes doesn't share Russell's satisfaction in having an anti-war stance.) Black Hawk Down was also set in the modern combat era, but this new movie doesn't possess Ridley Scott's flair (or mania) for state-of-the-art battle scenes; in fact, Jarhead is least involving when it comes to its brief moments of war. Full Metal Jacket and The Thin Red Line focused on the human drama, but neither of them get as close to the characters as Mendes does, perhaps because Swofford's memoir provided real people not so different than us at its center. Inevitably, Jarhead covers some familiar genre conventions, but it is a unique experience because it's the first to express the very Gen-X philosophy that it's all been done before -- both combat itself and the war movies about said combat. Without being nihilistic or smugly defeatist, Jarhead is a matter-of-fact argument about the existential nothingness of war.
In very tangible ways, Mendes makes the first Gulf War come alive as relevant living history. In any film that's set in the last 50 years, the quickest method for marking an era is through its popular radio hits, but (with a couple of exceptions) Jarhead's musical choices are shockingly effective and evocative. It's easy to play a dated song from a period to get a knowing laugh from the audience, but scenes of high emotion scored to, say, Nirvana's "Something in the Way" or Naughty by Nature's "O.P.P." don't just show good taste -- they sum up a time, especially for the teenagers and early twentysomethings who felt that music so powerfully at the time. (To great comedic effect, a hovering U.S. helicopter blares the Doors as it flies by our squadron, causing Swofford to respond dismissively that the band is "Vietnam music," Jarhead's shrewd generational separation from both Jim Morrison and Apocalypse Now's Doors-scored opening montage.)
Speaking of Apocalypse Now, Jarhead also is very Gen-X in its clear referencing of other war films. Rambo, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Full Metal Jacket are alluded to either cinematically or in dialogue that specifically mentions those war flicks. But this isn't obvious name-dropping; Mendes is showing how a generation raised on war films can now only process its own experience through what it has seen in a theater. (It brings to mind Bono's inspiration for the era's Zoo TV tour: a Gulf War pilot saying that his combat flying felt just like playing a video game. Nothing feels anymore -- the high points of life are just comparable pop-culture sensations.)
In its postmodern way, Jarhead screws with our genre expectations by giving us a war film with almost no war scenes. The Thin Red Line emphasized the agonizing waiting between firefights, but this new movie operates under the impression that there isn't ever going to be a firefight -- it imagines going off to war as the most expensive day-job drudgery ever. This is an apt metaphor -- whether it's Gus Van Sant's death trilogy or Office Space or Garden State or a thousand other examples, many movies aimed at or about or by Gen-Xers takes as a given that life is not going to be as great for the kids as it was for their parents, that most everything is going to end up being underwhelming or just flat-out shitty. Grunge music made fluent angst of this dilemma before it became a cynical cliché of itself, but a film like Jarhead restores the sentiment to its original intention: a sadness at the loss of possibilities or dreams. Mendes adopts that philosophy, making a war film that is less about finding a new way to say "War Is Bad" and more about acknowledging the banality of the war film -- hell, even our combat isn't gonna be as cool as our parents'.
Refreshingly, Jarhead has no interest in "shocking" its audience with brutality or "inciting" us to protest in the streets against our current Iraq quagmire. In comparison to George Clooney's impressive Good Night, and Good Luck, Jarhead doesn't bother to make the comparisons between history and today's news -- it knows that we know and also knows that we don't care to think about it anymore. At a time when a majority of Americans are questioning the validity of our ouster of Saddam Hussein, Jarhead takes a seemingly blasé approach that is more about resignation than about simply not caring in the first place. Whether you're from a Blue or Red state, by this point the situation in Iraq has become a numbingly repetitive ordeal of endless bad news and distrust. Jarhead captures that ad nauseum extremely well; it feels precisely like you do a week after you were really furious about something -- still angry but now more disassociated from the feeling.
I realize I've discussed very little of the plot, but that seems appropriate for a film that's very much about its emotional essence. In fact, Jarhead stumbles in its final act by forcing a story resolution onto its disaffected characters -- only here does it seem like a "regular" war movie. When you walk out of the theater, individual performances and moments resonate less than the overall effect of being lost, beleaguered, ill-equipped for adulthood. Generation X is a little older now, and it can look at a film like Jarhead with perspective, seeing how we were then and where we are now -- it's not a rosy picture. For a lot of people, Apocalypse Now isn't just a war movie but an expression of the counterculture: wildly overambitious, hedonistic, ready to take over the world. Like it or not, Jarhead's inaction and muted despondency sums up a new generation in all its surly, sarcastic, hopeless, unfulfilled glory: Here we are now, entertain us.
Believe the Hype Rating: 7 out of 10
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.