Accessibility links

<i>Jarhead</i> Takes Viewer Inside 1991 Persian Gulf War

English-born director Sam Mendes explored the darker side of suburban life in his Oscar-winning "American Beauty." His new film is adapted from a battlefield memoir of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Alan Silverman has a look at Jarhead.

"Jarhead" is the nickname used by generations of U.S. Marines; and Anthony Swofford chose it as the title of his memoir: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and other Battles, a best-seller published in 2003.

Like the book, the film traces Swofford's experiences as a 20-year-old Marine recruit, trained as a sniper sharpshooter.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as the young warrior who is sent to Saudi Arabia as part of "Operation Desert Shield," marks time there for months and then, finally, gets the conflict he wants so badly.

But Gyllenhaal says the reality turns out to be quite different from what Swofford and his fellow Marines expected.

"There's a reality to it and we all know that reality now. I think the movie shows the realities that we've been told about," he says. " We all know about the prisoners of war and the oil fires, but we never had really seen them or had an emotional connection to characters involved in them (and) maybe this will give some kind of connection."

"It's not a conventional war movie," adds director Sam Mendes. "I would say it's a psychological portrait in many ways and less of an action movie."

Mendes says he felt he had to "earn the right" to tell the story of these American soldiers; but he also believes coming from another culture helped him be more objective than an American filmmaker might have been.

"There are certain things that you take from it - about the people involved and about the kind of person that's drawn to be a Marine and the sense of individuality with each person within the group - that are a constant, whether it's this war, the Gulf War, Vietnam or any other war in the last hundred years," he says."You say that it's American, but this platoon is made up of two Hispanics, a Hungarian and their platoon leader is an African-American. It's a real melting pot, so I never thought of it as a specifically American tale. I think the fact that we're ... the U.S. ... is at war at the moment and in the same part of the world, obviously, makes it a little bit more relevant in that area; but I don't think it's going to speak any less to Europeans."

The film was made without Pentagon cooperation; according to the producers, among official complaints about the script was the amount of profanity used by the Marines. So Mendes enlisted an advisers corps of retired military men who served in the Gulf War, along with author Swofford, to ensure accuracy. But by showing the gritty reality of the battlefield, does Jarhead make an anti-war statement? Mendes bristles at the suggestion that the film is designed to send a message:

"I think we're in a culture now that forces you to define things in black-and-white," he says. " Are you pro the war or against the war? Well, it's not as simple as that. Well, it should be. Are you pro or against? Is there a message? Does this movie have a message? Well, no, it doesn't have a message. Is it a discussion of the problems? Yes. Does it engender debate? Yes. Does it increase understanding? I hope so ... and those are the important things; but to try and force one into saying 'well, the comment of this movie is x or y...' - I think that's reductive and it's always going to be a failure on the part of the filmmaker either to promise that or to try and deliver it."

Jake Gyllenhaal says he and his fellow cast-members came to the film with a variety of political views, but came away united in their respect for the real-life military men on whom their characters were based.

"I think the message is more that the men who fight in these wars are separate from the administrations that make those choices," he says. "I think that became really clear to me while I was doing it. I have such an overwhelming admiration for what they do. When someone said to me 'oh, you're playing in that Army movie, right?' I answer 'it's a Marine movie. Get it right.' It's really important to me that the distinction is made and it was never like that before."

"Jarhead" co-stars Jamie Foxx as Sykes, Swofford's platoon sergeant; Peter Sarsgaard is his fellow Marine and mentor Troy; and Chris Cooper plays the gung-ho Colonel Kazinski. The script is adapted from the Anthony Swofford book by screenwriter William Broyles.