movies, music and everything else

This blog is about pretty much what the title implies... movies, music and everything else.

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Friday, August 05, 2005

JARHEAD: a portrait of the modern soldier

I was recently able to attend a research screening of the new film from director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition), JARHEAD. This film follows a marine, or ‘jarhead’, from basic training, through operation Desert Shield, and into operation Desert Storm. This is as much of the plot as I will get into, but this is a movie that is not about the plot as much as it is about the characters. This is a film that successfully gets into the mind of the modern marine. While it is technically a “war film”, it is unlike any war film that I have seen. To compare this to a movie like “Platoon”, “Apocalypse Now”, “Glory”, or “Full Metal Jacket” is a mistake. It will, no doubt, draw comparisons to these films, but this is a different kind of movie. Operation Desert Storm was a unique war, and this is a unique war film.

Desert Storm was a war that lasted a total of four days and six hours. Almost all of the fighting was done by air strikes, from a distance. What happened to the men that were on the ground? Men that the military had transformed into efficient killing machines. In training, these men were taught not to think, but to react… to fight. What happens to a person when this is instilled in their personality and then they are not given the opportunity to fight? They are so close to combat, but have to wait, to stand by, only to continue their training. What effect does this have on the mind and actions of these men? These are the questions that “Jarhead” addresses. Because of this, the movie becomes very internal. The tone and the mood changes throughout as it does for the individual characters. Do they want to be there and fight, or go home and have a normal life? By never getting the chance to actually fight, these men don’t go through the same horrors that soldiers in other wars did. The difference between being trained to kill and actually killing is huge. One can change who you are and the other can destroy it.

Jake Gyllenhaal is the lead (Anthony ‘Swoff’ Swofford) of the film and really pulls off this difficult character. Swofford views signing up for the marines as a mistake of youth, but then develops a talent and a love of being a killing machine. He is the narrator and audience surrogate in the film. It is because of this that the tone of the film changes throughout and it is neither a pro war or anti war film. It is simply a look at the modern military system through the eyes of a 20 year old confused kid. I have been a fan of Gyllenhaal for years and have been waiting for him to play a character that would showcase what he can do as an actor. This is that film. Jake has many more films ahead of him (two more this fall – "Proof" and "Brokeback Mountain") and is poised to become one of the premiere actors of his generation. Recently signing to star in “Zodiac” (the next from director David Fincher) Jake shows that he is continuing to choose smart, quality projects.

Jamie Foxx (Sgt. Seik) delivers a strong supporting performance. He is not as good as he was in “Ray”, but this is not that kind of character. It is not a showy performance. He is the rock of the group, the leader. One of the most pleasant surprises is Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Swofford’s partner (spotter), Troy. Sarsgaard has a history of being a highly respected indie actor that never gets his just recognition. This movie should change that. This is arguably his best performance, and he is able to show sides of himself that I have never seen. The rest of the cast is also very good, with great performances by Chris Cooper, Evan Jones, and Lucas Black.

The directing and the cinematography should be mentioned together. Mendes previously working with Conrad Hall on his first two films (both winning Oscars for photography), but after Hall died in 2002, Mendes had to choose another collaborator. He chose Roger Deakins. Deakins, most famous for his work with the Coen brothers, works with Mendes to create a unique and visually stunning way to tell this story. The look of the film is both beautiful and haunting. This film is a departure for Mendes as a storyteller. The frequent use of hand held shots creates an organic and natural feel. I am really excited to see the film in its completed form, after color timing and the finalizing of visual effects. Also on the film is one of the greatest editors/sound designers of all time, Walter Murch. The ball is in his court now.

The movie as in its current rough cut form is very good, but with some tightening and tweaking of certain scenes, it has the potential to be great. I have faith in all of the people involved, that they will achieve the potential of this film. This is a movie to look for when it comes out, November 4th. If you go in with an open mind, ready for a unique first person account of life as a marine, “Jarhead” will be a pleasant surprise… a different movie about a different war.


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