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Jarhead surprised me by not being harder to take than it was. The one really painful scene came early on. Marines, still at Camp Pendleton, are watching Apocalypse Now. On the screen within the screen, Lt Col Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) directs an aerial attack on a coastal Vietnamese village, to a sound track of "The Ride of the Valkyries." The Marines in the theatre cannot contain their excitement; they bounce like kernels of popping corn. They're gung ho, rooting for the thoroughly undermatched American forces as if unaware that their team will ultimately lose the game. The irony of this momentary cluelessness and the tragedy of their predictable but lamentable enthusiasm for colorful carnage combine to make a bitter pill. It is a scene from Lord of the Flies, but one instigated by adults. The Marine Command must presumably be aware of the young men's inappropriate excitement. Excuse me; it's not inappropriate on the eve of engagement. Is it.

The rest of the film poses the question, Is what I'm seeing necessary? Do you have to push men this hard in order to make effective soldiers out of them? (Remember that the team of snipers featured in this drama are elite shooters, as far from Army "specialists" as you can go, at least on the ground.) It is not my place to answer, but I suggest that the price is too high. Jarhead suggests that the men killed in action - and none are, here - might be the lucky ones. Their survivors may go on drawing breath, but only at the edge of an excruciating and dismal nightmare. A nervous system stretched past maximum for months at a time will never relax to a healthy calm.

As such, Jarhead takes issue with the current manner of training and maintaining crack troops. (It's important to remember that the snipers in this drama are elite shooters, not "specialists.") The film itself is not gung ho. There is no climax to redeem the months of grueling boredom. On the contrary, there is only the anticlimax of not being allowed, ultimately - very ultimately - to take out an Iraqi target.

Jake Gyllenhaal is the star of Jarhead, but the film works best when his character, Swofford, is interacting with his partner, Troy, played by Peter Sarsgaard. While the guileless Swofford has nothing to hide, Troy is a locked trunk of secrets, and Mr Sarsgaard could have stolen the picture if director Sam Mendes hadn't resolutely featured Mr Gyllenhal. It would be silly to see anything homoerotic in the relation between the two soldiers, but it might be argued that Jarhead illumines depths of non-carnal male intimacy, which, much line sonar, functions as a series of answered challenges. 

Comparisons to Three Kings, the other movie about Desert Storm, are unavoidable. What the two movies share is a complete lack of nobility. Ideals that were still available to the Greatest Generation were finished off, it would seem, in Vietnam.

What do I think about Jarhead? I don't know. But I want to see it again. Not tomorrow, but soon.


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