J is for Jarhead (2005)

True story about US marine sniper Anthony Swofford’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) experience in the Gulf War. As he and his unit are stationed in the Persian Gulf for months on end with little chance of seeing any action, he struggles with thoughts that his girlfriend back home is cheating on him and his mental state deteriorates.

Jake Gyllenhaal is a fantastic lead and Swofford is a compelling character that your eyes are drawn to whenever he’s on screen. The moments of intensity when he loses it are as scary as the dead look in his eyes when his superior Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) is reprimanding him. The supporting cast are great too which include Peter Sarsgaard as Swofford’s spotter and Lucas Black as a marine who criticises the politics of the conflict and the often-faulty equipment they are given.

Seeing how Swofford and the others cope, or don’t, with the monotony of waiting in a desert for something to do and how their idea of war is vastly different to the reality, is interesting. Especially as even if you see no or little action, your mind and body are still almost constantly focussed in order to react at any second if needed.

That being said, it’s difficult to figure out what this film is trying to say and who you’re supposed to be sympathising with. So many of the men are eager to kill an unknown enemy and are desperate to see action. It’s a bloodlust that’s uncomfortable to watch but when you see the environment that that attitude is bred in it’s hard to see how anyone wouldn’t go almost feral. The arduous bootcamp, where superior officers belittle, abuse and yell at the soldiers, forces the men to develop thick skin and a whole other way at looking at the world.

It’s understandable that those on the frontline need to be tough and capable, but to the extents that the men are pushed to are debatable. Plus, it’s like those in charge whose rhetoric is treated as gospel don’t learn that their actions have consequences, and superior officers are almost surprised when their men act out due to boredom or depravity.

No soldier deserves the abuse they receive by their superior officers or their fellow soldiers. And there’s no denying the effects of war, whether they see action or not, can be incredibly mentally taxing. However, are these all good men who are mistreated or lied to by the system they joined up to? Or do some of them use their training and perceived superiority in order to act however they wish? Perhaps in some cases it’s both, and maybe it’s a good thing that Jarhead leaves that decision up to the viewer.

Jarhead is a well-shot film with good performances. It can be tense and unsettling and the way it gives an unflinching look at a soldier’s life during war can make you take a long, hard look at the military system as a whole. 3/5.

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