24/03/2017

Jarhead - Army Of Lost Children: Transcending The Mundane Cliché

Thoughts On: Jarhead (2005)


A sniper in the Gulf War waits for action, struggling to keep his mind focused on his present time and situation.


This is a film that seems to have many split. Some see this movie as cliched and ridiculous, others see it as profound and impactful. I personally enjoy Jarhead and think it is an exemplary war movie. The acting throughout the film is shaky - at early points pretty bad - as is the writing. And, of course, there are a billion references that are made...




From Apocalypse Now to Full Metal Jacket to The Deer Hunter and more, this film imitates the form, style and tone of great war movies. When I first saw this I called bullshit and was pretty frustrated, but as you're continually hit over the head with constant calls to better movies you realise that these aren't just nods. The cliches, references and tropes are all there to contribute to the narrative. A key line in the film makes this obvious is: 'All wars are different. All wars are the same'. Like Fight Club, this movie reflects on the day and age we live in, in juxtaposition to that of the previous generations. And in such, a large part of this film is dedicated to an exploration of how warfare in the late 80s is different from that in the late 60s, mid 40s or early 20th century. This is made explicit with the allusion to how war fronts move; it taking months to move the enemy back a significant distance in WWII, weeks in the Vietnam War, but mere moments in the modern age. Simultaneously however, this film is also dedicated to exploring how all wars are the same. There has always been fear, boredom, camaraderie (and a lack thereof), homesickness, anxiety, paranoia and heartbreak. And this final thematic interest is certainly the strongest aspect of Jarhead.

What Jarhead then builds itself to be is a postmodern interpretation of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and a few other Vietnam war film classics (some of which are arguably postmodern themselves). The characters in this film seek out or begin to have the conflicts characters such as Joker, Pyle, Willard, Kurtz, Chris or Elias do in their respective films. This means that, like these many other characters, they want to get in the shit, they want to go home, they want honour, distinction, to be remembered, to live up to expectation, to be loved, to test themselves and find out exactly who they are. The futility and almost pathetic nature of these conflicts is embellished by how childish someone like Anthony is made to seem in juxtaposition to characters like Chris from Platoon or Joker from Full Metal Jacket. There is then something of an undermining of a soldier's woes and sorrows in this film, and there is no better way of recognising this than to read reviews that laugh at how 'bad' this movie is. Just as we are all somewhat tired of war movies, people in general seem to be tired of war in the real world. In such, the concept of war in modern society seems to lack punch and purpose, and this manifests itself in something I feel when seeing new war movies come out. In the back of my head, I'm constantly saying to myself, 'What's the point? It's not going to be better than [insert great war movie title]'.

This question of what's the point? is most prevalent in the war film genre as it is one of the most limited. This seems to be because the fictional war film is trying to not only document human history, but also add something to it. However, in a two to three hour space, a narrative film is not going to do much in the way of explaining history any better than a history book, documentary or teacher. This is the major what's the point? concerning the war genre. Yes, WWI was an incredibly complex social and political event in human history, but how many films must we see about it; very few will be able to show us something new or give new incite, characters and stories. Even when we do get new, smaller stories based on true events, films like Saving Private Ryan, the actual story is usually very weak. And so what narrative war films primarily aim to do is convey either the experience of war or commentate on it - and such is the stregnth of Saving ivate Ryan.

This is what we explored when looking into Platoon and the conventions of horror-war films. Through concept, emotion, psychology or physical happenings, wars films will try to show us something new by putting us into the head of a soldier or on the battle field. And it's this that is the major creative outlet of the war movie genre; communicating to the audience what war feels like. Documentaries and textbooks, in my view, do not have the visceral and emotional capacity to tell stories that cinema does and so this emotional projection of war is the primary redeeming factor of this genre. But, this paradigm sets an incredibly high bar for filmmakers attempting to make war movies. If we are precisely judging their movies on experience, and we have seen Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, these filmmakers have to do something and make us feel a way that these masterful movies haven't or couldn't. Nobody really needs to be told of how daunting this task of bettering Spielberg, Kubrick or Coppola must be.

However, I'm not saying we should spend a lot of time sympathising with these filmmakers who are inherently trying to out-do the masters of cinema. Instead, having outlined this president, I think it will become all the more poignant seeing how Mendes has constructed this film around references. He seems to be submitting to these classic films, saying to the audience that, 'you have come with expectations and I know it'. He says this, as previously alluded to, because, like war movies, war in general is very much questioned in the modern day. Whilst battle, violence and bloodshed has always been questioned throughout history, there is no romantic view of The Light Brigade charging towards self-sacrifice with honor anymore in the modern zeitgeist. There certainly remains a strong sense of patriotism in many millions, but, I don't think it's reaching to say that Tennyson has been overwhelmed by Call Of Duty. This all seems to be a symptom of a post-Napoleonic world; a world that has not only seen the rise of national armies that use hundred of thousands or millions of common men, but a world that has watched those millions of soldiers die by the barrel of monolithic technological advances in WWI and onwards. In the past 200 years, war has grown many folds more devastating and destructive which has seemingly lead to the inevitable dissolution of romanticising it. After all, how can you successfully continue to glorify and promote the seemingly senseless killing of millions when the collective cause loses grip on the fighting individual?

From All Quiet On The Western Front onwards, there has seemingly been a cultural questioning of exactly this. What Jarhead then captures is a similar change in culture. Not only are we questioning the purpose of war, but the purpose of war movies; what do we have to gain from any of them? This isn't to suggest that the vast majority of people can or will rationalise that war and battle has to stop and so must the movies depicting them. All I, who is most definitely not an authority on history, war, culture or politics, mean to suggest is that there is a clear wall or shield we hold up to all that is war related - movies especially.

So, coming back to Jarhead and its design as a war film that doesn't have much respect or sympathy for soldiers, we can begin to see that the self-awareness and deprecation is there in response to a somewhat calloused audience that has seen better war films and doubts that there is much more to be said about the experience of soldiers. This manifests itself almost as a pressure that forces us to see characters such as Anthony as children and the pointless narrative the only story accessible in this day and age. In other words, the inevitability of this film's style and cliche/trope-heavy approach are what is embraced and where the substance of this story is found. In such, there is a strong sense of melancholy and isolation put upon this film as a piece of cinema, but also on the characters within it; no one seems to readily want to care about it or them.

The reason why I think Jarhead is a great movie is then the way that it uses this to drive home themes of haphazardness and loss. Throughout the film, the most prevalent conflict is certainly the loved ones left at home. Like no other war film I know of, Jarhead conveys the anxiety and pain consuming soldiers as they think of wives and girlfriends cheating or distancing themselves from them. And because this is such a significant part of the narrative, almost every action characters perform is in relation to home. We see this to be true in films such as Platoon and Apocalypse Now, but the relationship between soldiers and home is heavily weighted by themes of physical torment. And in such, the emotional conflicts of soldiers in these films seems distracted or distant by present battles and commotion. Conversely, in Jarhead, this relationship between home and war is tangible and up-front; we can't help but feel it as we're forced to wait and wait and wait. This is what gives the film its punch in my opinion. It stands up with the giants of this genre because we are forced to experience the muted woes of soldiers (muted by external forces; a society that doesn't view war or war movies as they used to) whilst reeling back and questioning our empathising.

So, to conclude, Jarhead is a heavily self-reflexive experience and film that cautiously questions what lies behind the eyes of a soldier. Are they just dumb, empty vessels? If so, why are we so interested in them, what is there to care about, what can be said about these jarheads?

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