As American director and screenwriter Paul Haggis explained when presenting his new feature In the Valley of Elah, the first film to address the devastating consequences of the war in Iraq , making a film in the context of modern war is necessarily a political act. By choosing whether to talk about the subject or not, the filmmaker sends a definite message to the public. English director Sam Mendes therefore made a clear statement when he decided to direct Jarhead (2005).
Adapted from the eponymous book by former marine Anthony Swofford, Jarhead depicts the soldiers’ experience in the desert during the Gulf War, waiting to fight a battle which took place miles away, in the planes launching missiles on an enemy they never met, or from the camp’s computers targeting bombs on far away adversaries.
When analysing a recent piece of work in its social, political, and economic contexts, lacking hindsight on the events implies great risks. But therein lies the film’s strength: analysing in depth the first Gulf War to understand and criticise today’s conflict in the Middle-East. Understanding the film in the prism of Baudrillard’s The Gulf War did not take place helps pointing out the issues of today’s conflict in Iraq, and therefore puts Jarhead in the wider context of current questioning of the American myth of supremacy.
The Gulf War did not take place
Baudrillard’s analysis of the Gulf War led him to conclude, after a series of three articles published in Liberation that the conflict, in the end, never happened. Based on his theory of hyperrealism, his book explains how everything was set up to create the impression of a war, when in fact it was lacking the essence of a true fight. The French philosopher accurately describes it as a “war stripped of its passions, its phantasms, its finery, its veils, its violence, its images” , and this is exactly the atmosphere Sam Mendes reproduced in his film.
Sam Mendes’ work follows the same intellectual pattern: he recreates the perfect war atmosphere, as an experimental aquarium, and at the same time he subtly shows the flaws of this fake historical event, leading us to question ourselves about the true existence of this conflict. He introduces the spectator to men dressed up as soldiers, training in an ordinary military camp with a harsh sergeant yelling at them, placed in a desert which could be anywhere in the world (not one single scene was shot in the Middle East but instead in Southern California and Mexico ), and he provides them with guns and other military equipment. The hyperrealist world of war is set up in the first third of the feature, and then slowly torn apart.
The soldiers are kept in a camp far from an allegedly existing battlefield, they never get to apply what they were taught, or fight the enemy they are here to eradicate. The sole figures of the opposite side they meet is a troop of Bedouins searching for their camel, in an impersonal, distantly filmed sequence, or burned corpses of Iraqis who tried to escape. In both cases, they do not have faces, as if they didn’t exist.
Analysing Jarhead in the context of the second gulf war therefore takes all its meaning: to what extent was this procedure used again in nowadays conflict? Is today’s war just the sequel of a fake battle, a hyperrealist historical event?
Still, a main characteristic differs in this second war, which may be the reason why the film suffered weak numbers at the box office in the United States (but not in Europe): the soldiers have indeed met the Iraqis, and there has been some severe casualties. Therefore, telling the Americans who daily endure the losses’ numbers that there is no true enemy, and that their sons, brothers, husbands are dying for a useless conflict, surely must not appeal to them.
By the time Jarhead was released, the American administration was realising the costs of the war were higher than expected , the Congress was asked to withdraw the troops, and some called the conflict the “new Vietnam”, in regard to the situation becoming a “quagmire”.
Hence, picturing the first gulf war, “the new war” as it has been named, where the soldiers stay in their camp and send bombs miles away from their adversary, in the context of the second war at its most critical time, shows in a much subtler way, and stronger, how today’s conflict is a failure. It tells the spectator that invading Iraq should have transpired as it did the first time, with no casualties and no risks, in a few months, yet it ended up lasting years and looses more and more soldiers and civilians each day.
Mendes’ comparison technique reaches its highest point when approaching the subject of the media coverage. After depicting the boredom and the frustration of the soldiers, when the characters have finally understood nothing will happen in the desert, the director decides to demonstrate, from the battlefield’s point of view, how media manipulated the international audience, contributing to the hyperrealism of the event (the “war in images” as it has been called, in reference to the journalists arriving before the soldiers to be able to film their disembarking). When journalists come to the camp to relate what the fighter’s everyday lives in Iraq are like, the marines are asked (ordered) to lie about their condition, in order to maintain a feeling of safety back home, an image of a war how people want it to be. For the second time, Sam Mendes chooses not to show the journalists’ faces, in order to only focus on the soldiers’ point of view. Once again, he uses the past war to denounce the unscrupulous ways of the media in today’s context regarding Iraq, from the reverse angle.
Yet, Jarhead was accused of not taking part enough in today’s intellectual movement in cinema, the independent filmmakers rising against Bush’s policy, or America’s policies throughout the recent years in general. At the very time it was released, other films such as Lord of War or The Constant Gardener were explicitly pointing fingers at the administration’s policy in international relations or health, in the manner of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Jarhead appeared too light in comparison. Mendes confesses himself “I’ve a feeling Jarhead is going to be «the film that I most like but was misunderstood by the critics»” . He admits himself the mistake his crew made by trying to sell the film to everybody, using a polished advertising campaign and therefore being labelled a conformist film . When it is absolutely not.
Jarhead and the questioning of the American myth
By the sole nature of its content, Jarhead fits in the “American independent cinema” category, the nonconformist alternative to Hollywood’s well-established codes. Quentin Tarantino explains its birth by the public’s need for change in the late 80’s . But with the help of Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival, and Miramax’s Weinstein brothers, the movement became one of its own, responding to precise criteria: the financing of the film, how the plot is set up, and the way it is directed .
The financing requirement has gradually become obsolete, but Jarhead illustrates the duality between the need for the big studios’ money and the director’s will to keep the film its own, as it is financed partly by Universal Pictures, and partly by Sam Mendes’ production company, Neal Street, amongst others.
The second criteria is also completed. As Harmony Korine, one of today’s new figures of independent filmmaking, has summed up: “I do not believe in plot. Things just don’t happen like that in life” . Indeed, Jarhead is all about nothing happening. The film starts directly in the military camp, with no further detail on the protagonists’ previous lives, and then focuses on the waiting, the lack of combat in the desert. Sight & Sound’s review was largely based on this issue of narration, as the journalist established her opinion rather on the film itself than on the historical context it was taken from, and therefore stated that “boredom and disappointment are the key notes here” .
Direction is the last key element of an American independent movie, and in Jarhead’s case, Sam Mendes made sure director of photography Roger Deakins was in charge of the shooting, as he wanted his whole movie handled. As the latter relates it, the director wanted to solely focus on the characters, their minds, and not burden the image with impressive sequences, lacking realism for a true observer .
Hence, by its sole form and even regardless of its content, the film is without question a part of today’s American movement which uses art as a way of questioning society and especially Bush’s administration. As Sam Mendes put it, “the very act of making this film in this climate is political” .
Furthermore, having this film directed by this filmmaker is political. Not only because the English director has never hidden his opposition to the war in Iraq, but because of his first work, the masterpiece American Beauty (1999). The latter having become a symbol of the deriding of America’s hyperrealist perfect world in the suburbs, its director has automatically reached the emblematic title of alternative personality in Hollywood’s small world.
At a time where America needs proof of its superiority, of its ability to win its battles and of the legitimacy of this invasion, Mendes chose to make an anti heroic film, or even an anti war film. Indeed it lacks all the elements of a classic war movie as anyone can expect it: the soldiers are far from being heroes, there is no gun shot, no impressive bombs exploding, no mean enemy the spectator wants to die horribly, no battle.
It doesn’t take long before private Troy realises “this war is gonna move too fast for us”, and that their presence in the desert might appear more useless than expected.
Jarhead pictures in an almost suffocating way the waiting, the frustration of the soldiers. Mendes wants us to endure the same disappointment than the marines.
During two hours, the demanding soldiers are kept in a state of constant tumescence, being promised a heroic confrontation, and kept aroused by Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, without ever being allowed a final release. “Throughout these seven months, the war has unfolded like a long striptease, following the calculated escalation of undressing and approaching the incandescent point of explosion (like that of erotic effusion) but at the same time withdrawing from it and maintaining a deceptive suspense (teasing), such that when the naked body finally appears, it is no longer naked, desire no longer exists and the orgasm is cut short” .
The film therefore uncovers the long process of emasculation of these soldiers, how they were prevented from fulfilling their mission, emptying it from all its purpose: Swofford can no longer masturbate, and his team partner Troy cries his frustration when stopped from finally killing, and begs his superior to let him mean something.
And when the war is finally over, there has been no battle, and Swofford’s rifle has not even been used. Freud would certainly agree on the symbolism of the last scene when the soldiers finally release their guns of their useless bullets, but in the end come back home without ever having had an intercourse.
Mendes’ choice to adapt a book written from a soldier’s point of view allowed him to avoid the particular genre of the political accusatory film such as today’s Lions for Lambs or Rendition, and solely focus on the men whose lives truly suffer the consequences of the war.
It is followed today by Paul Haggis’ In the valley of Elah which deals with the devastating matter of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), this time from one of the marine’s father’s point of view.
Indeed Jarhead depicts with great finesse the difficult subject of the soldiers’ psychological experience, it addresses their disappointment, and how the war becomes part of them forever: “We are still in the desert” marine Swofford concludes.