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War Is Murder

'Jarhead' has a lot going for it, including realistic soldiers and Jake Gyllenhaal's bod

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That Jake Gyllenhaal sure has a difficult-to-spell last name and a nice ass. He's also, it turns out, a tremendous film actor. He has the kind of underplayed intensity of expression and seething subtlety of vocalization that really works in close-ups.

Luckily, Mr. Gyllenhaal turned down the role of Chris "Scooter" Cringle in The Santa Clause IV: Santa Claus Vs. the ACLU Who Stole Christmas and is instead starring in Jarhead. This may not be the best movie of the year, but it's probably the best-shot film of the year, and the acting is strong enough to get over any blank patches in the plot. Plus, the screenplay does something that war movies almost never do, or at least don't do without moralizing about it: It shows that some people really like being soldiers. I'm sick of the war movies where everyone's a hero-fighter whose sole concern is the greater good, and I'm sick of the films where all the soldiers are anti-war sympathizers whose dialogue sounds like it was written by Angela Davis.

Some people just want to be soldiers. Killing is, among many other things, tremendously appealing. That's why we do it. We're mid-sized predators, deadly at range, well-constructed to throw lethal projectiles at other animals. Sadly, those other animals are sometimes the same species as us.

Jarhead shows a group of soldiers who--while conflicted by the desire to return home, the desire to do their duty and the desire to jerk off, show off and get off--also desire to kill a bad guy. How could you not want to kill if you've just spent months in intensive kill-training? Boot camp plus sniper school would make Gandhi into a killer.

Now, you'd have to be a moral retard to think that killing and war are good things. War is always bad. The only reason reasonable people ever support wars is because they think a situation is so bad that war wouldn't be worse. Unreasonable people support war because they are trying to show their daddies that they can win one. But people like that probably shouldn't be allowed to mess around with Diebold machines.

But I digress. Even if war is bad, it's still desired, even if for all the wrong reasons. What Jarhead does that very few war films do is present an account of those trained for war, in both their distaste and their desire for war. And I think this nonjudgmental presentation makes this a more complex picture of the soldier's life than most message films could achieve.

The story follows Anthony Swofford (Gyllenhaal) from his first day of basic training through the end of the first Gulf War. In spite of his apathy and distanced relation to the Marine Corps, he winds up longing for the chance to use his sniper training to deliver at least one shot, and to obtain at least one kill.

But as those who watched Gulf War I noted, there wasn't a lot of ground action. It was probably the first and maybe only time that a war was won from the air. So as the troops advance on the war, the war retreats from them. It's an interesting dilemma: They don't want to be in the war, but they want to kill a bad guy.

The philosopher Jean Baudrillard famously said that the first Gulf War did not occur, because a war is a conflict wherein two armies try to kill each other, and Gulf War I was more a simulation of war: One army simply advanced in the face of little or no resistance, killing and filming the killing for television consumption. It produced many of the effects of war, like death and disease and destruction, but without the level of danger to the invading troops glorious liberators that seems such an essential part of war.

It was a weird war for those on the ground, and Jarhead shows how this weirdness affected the men we sent there. The acting really comes to the fore as the men slowly go mad sitting and waiting for the call to action--Bush the First wisely spent six months stocking the desert with American troops before going in to achieve his limited goals. Crazy idea, but it just sort of worked.

Of course, those six months were not pleasant for the Marines who were the first to show up in the hellish northern Saudi desert, and director Sam Mendes does a good job of showing that. While he's enormously helped by his cast, the real star of this film might be Roger Deakins, who's easily one of the best cinematographers alive. Shots of the desert lit up at night by burning oil wells evoke something out of a medieval nightmare. You could turn the sound off on the latter part of the film and still be completely enraptured by the careful and yet overwhelming imagery.

But then you'd miss the story, which I think is singularly interesting in its evocation of the boredom, distance and horror of the soldier far from home. It's been said that all war films are anti-war films. That's true enough; this film is something more: It shows that humans fight those wars. Not spokespeople for a cause, and not characters in a video game simulation, but people whose feelings might be markedly more complex than any political slant could capture.

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