Sunday, November 06, 2005

Jarhead - Movie Review (In praise of Peter Sarsgaard, Pt. 2)

Jarhead 2005

We have to admit a guilty pleasure to you all. We love War Movies. Now, calm down. We’re not talking about the Flag-waiving-blow-the-enemy-to-smithereens type of Rambo filmmaking that most mouthbreathers are so fond of. We have no desire to sit and watch explosions going off in Dolby Digital® around our delicate features while some Bruce Willis type alpha male glorifies xenophobia and captures a hill. But, then why do you love the War Movies, you ask? Well, we’ll tell you. If we look back to some of our favorite films, we cannot deny the simple fact that War Movies can make for great cinema.

Some of the best moments in movie history in fact. John Gilbert hobbling home after the Great War in The Big Parade, Lew Ayres shattering the illusions of eager young Germans in All Quiet on the Western Front, Errol Flynn holding his abandoned troop together - mentally and physically in Objective Burma!”, the powerhouse duo of Robert Montgomery and John Wayne in the vastly underratedThey Were Expendable”, Alec Guinness embodying the best and worst of militarism in The Bridge on the River Kwai”, director Robert Altman inventing a new film language with M*A*S*H, the cold brilliance of Full Metal Jacket, to the dizzying camerawork and glorious pacing of The Thin Red LineWar Movies can capture the ridiculousness of the human experience in purely visual terms and after all, what else are Movies but Moving Pictures.

Jarhead” has many things going for it. Namely one. Jake Gyllenhaal. Our future husband, so relax ladies and boys, he’s off the market. Since his prepubescent toothy turn as Billy Crystal’s son in “Cityslickers”, thru “October Sky, Donnie Darko, Lovely & Amazing, “The Good Girl”, Proof to his upcoming Brokeback Mountain – we’ve been fans of Jakey. Even sitting thru “The Day After Tomorrow.” If that’s not love, we don’t know what is. If we were forced to numerate other pluses for this latest War Movie, we would have to name supporting cast members Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black and director Sam Mendes, who most of you will remember for his Academy Award winning black comedy about suburbia – “American Beauty”. Sadly, most of you will not remember him for his overlooked “The Road to Perdition”. Quite a lovely little depression era mobster flick. Go rent it now.

Back to “Jarhead.” Based on the best selling memoir by former marine, Anthony Swofford, “Jarhead” tells the tale of a young idealistic marine who goes to war. But fails to find one. For those of you too young to remember, there was once an American president named George Bush who went to war against Iraq over oil. In 1991. Go look it up. And clearly, the more things change, the more they stay the same. But like a good U.S. Supreme Court nominee, we’re going to side-step any political issues. The strength of “Jarhead” is clearly in the central casting and the jaundiced camera-eye of Sam Mendes. While we are not on the record as being his biggest fan, we can appreciate Mr. Mendes’ sincerity and his instinctual visual feel. He knows his way around a soundstage, or in this case, location shot. There were two stunning moments that we were quite impressed with. The moment of realization for Jake, as the war finally reaches his ragtag crew – and more importantly, the drunken party scene where Jake wears nothing more than a Santa Claus cap over his cock. Movies don’t get much better than that. [Well, we kinda hope “Brokeback Mountaingets a little better . . . time will tell.]

Supporting cast members Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper and Dennis Haysbert are all well cast as the local brass – but with the exception of Jamie Foxx are not allowed any moment to shine. Unfortunately Jamie Foxx’s moment to shine, while played convincingly falls short of the high water marks he is capable of. [See his wonderfully nuanced role in Collateral” – and yes, we know he won the Best Actor Oscar for the bloated “Ray”, but he was infinitely better in his Supporting Actor nominated role in the former. And by the way, “Supporting?” Supporting who? The car?] Back to “Jarhead”, the real supporting honors here go the increasingly brilliant Peter Sarsgaard. Who is having quite the year so far. We’ve always enjoyed his droopy eyed charms, from his Midwestern thug in “Boys Don’t Cry” to his fantastic turn as the beleaguered editor in “Shattered Glass.” Despite the ineptitude of “Flightplan”, he gave a solid spin to his role and he is simply fantastic in the current “The Dying Gaul.” [Go see our review!] With his role as Jake’s sniper scout, Peter gets to cut loose in an explosive scene wherein the pent up partners are forced to confront the bitter power struggles and realities of war. Petey, honey – we love you!

We must also pause to profess our undying love for young Lucas Black - who can do no wrong in our opinion. It’s not that he’s that great an actor, he’s just so damn cute! Okay, he is a good actor – but honestly he hasn’t been put to the test since he was a young nipper – opposite Billy Bob Thornton in the Oscar winningSling Blade” and later directed by BBT himself in the vastly underrated “All the Pretty Horses.” Here, Lucky Lucas does a fine job of playing the downhome hunk that is actually capable of questioning authority more than any of his fellow marines. This may or may not be a good thing.

This film is all about military authority. The physical stress and psychological damage that comes hand in rifle with their training. From “Birth of a Nation” till now, the imagery of war in cinema has always come down to whose side are you on? Not the winning or losing side, but the hawks or the doves. While it is not true that the only great war film is an anti-war film, it would be difficult to agree with any claim that perishing on the battlefields is the only true test of heroism. Just don’t try telling that to the young trainees in “Jarhead.” One of the most brilliant scenes shows them grouped together in an orgy of testosterone frenzy watching Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and cheering frantically at the now classic “Ride of the Valkyries” battle scene. At first we were shocked. “Apocalypse Now” is one of our favorite movies, due mainly to its incredible power of showing in purely cinematic terms the devastation of warfare. Apparently, this power is lost on the Jarheads themselves. And some of the audience members. We have heard grumblings that this film failed to meet some people’s expectations based solely on its lack of bloodshed. Foregoing the fact that they have never heard of the bestselling memoir, or couldn’t be bothered to read a review – are some folks so starved for relentless violence that they aren’t able to sit and watch an intelligent examination on the emotional price of war? Don’t bother answering. We know.

Whatever the physical cost of warfare, “Jarhead” focuses on the long and lazy moments in between gunfire barrages – and allows its characters to question their leaders and more importantly their own actions. This is where the film succeeds best. It takes the time to allow us to invest emotionally in the characters, so when the war finally arrives we are as nervous and edgy as they are. We must commend director Sam Mendes in casting our future husband Jake Gyllenhaal who rises to the occasion brilliantly. His breakdown scene with a fellow marine is excruciating to watch and never less than completely gripping. We know of a few other things we’d like to be gripping, but we’ll wait for “Brokeback Mountain” for that.

Bravo to Mr. Mendes, Sarsgaard and Black. And Mr. Gyllenhaal . . . CALL US!!! Bless you all!

Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by William Broyles Jr.
Based on the book by Anthony Swofford

Jake Gyllenhaal as Swoff
Peter Sarsgaard as Troy
Lucas Black as Kruger
Jamie Foxx as Staff Sgt. Sykes
Brian Geraghty as Fergus
Chris Cooper as Lt. Col. Kazinski
Dennis Haysbert as Major Lincoln

Cinematography by Roger Deakins
Costume Design by Albert Wolsky
Film Editing by Walter Murch
Production Design by Dennis Gassner
Art Direction by Stefan Dechant & Christina Wilson
Set Decoration by Nancy Haigh
Original Music by Thomas Newman