This ‘jar’ might be empty but it is purposely so

Sam Mendes’ new film, ‘Jarhead,’ whispers its political commentary

Jenna Ross

When a film classifies itself as a war film, it brings a whole host of expectations. There’s the conflicted war general, the grand battle scene, the soldier who dies in his friend’s arms.

“Jarhead” ignores these expectations. And that’s OK, because the war it features is unlike many wars.

But Gulf War films now carry with them their own expectations. People expect politics. And at first glance, “Jarhead” does all it can to avoid them.

The film follows “Swoff” (Jake Gyllenhaal), a specially trained sniper in the Marine Corps, as his company travels to the edge of the battle – and doesn’t find a single fight. Here, sand gets as much outright attention as the politics that brought them to choke on it.

The camera shows charred bodies but then quickly moves along. One Marine says the war began because of oil and corporate interest, but the comment comes and goes without discussion. The characters face media and madness and doubts. And not even the voiceover questions what’s behind it all.

As one Marine says, “Fuck politics. We’re here. All the rest is bullshit.” But while watching the men here, it’s interesting how clear the “bullshit” finally becomes. The desert, the Marines, the war and the film are all terribly empty. And in that emptiness, director Sam Mendes makes his point.

Three reasons to join up with ‘Jarhead’
The music

It begins with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Bobby McFerrin’s classic feel-good tune bridges the film’s opening minutes – as “Swoff” is sworn at, scoffed at, beaten and almost branded. The contradiction is clear and comedic.

The musical mismatches become meaningful as the film progresses. At the end of the film and the end of the war, the Marines celebrate the U.S. victory by dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

The film within the film

A scene in a movie theater hints at larger issues in the same way music makes its point. The Marines watch Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” And instead of seeing the film’s intentional excess, they see only the glory of war.

One Marine grins. Another gestures to the screen and tells his friend something we can’t hear but guess is “This part is so awesome.” Swoff looks like he just might have a hard-on.

Again, Mendes plays with us. We see that Coppola’s meaning is lost and – worse – misconstrued to support a sick ideal.

Jake Gyllenhaal

As Swoff, Gyllenhaal houses hysteria in his big, unblinking eyes. He shows us the men who sign on to the Marines, the men who witness war’s unreal reality and finally, the men who in that (un)reality have moments of madness.

In the film’s edgiest five minutes, Swoff holds a gun to the head of his fellow Marine who earned him the week’s poop-burning duty.

These Marines have seen no battle, no casualties, no war. Thankfully – and at the same time infuriatingly – burning feces is their ultimate horror. With little more than a maddened expression and a closeup, Gyllenhaal illustrates this realization. And the audience realizes it with him.

Even in this scene, Gyllenhaal somehow hides himself – and Swoff. He’s the film’s protagonist, yet he remains unknown and, yes, empty (Get it? Like a jar?).

Thus the film is political because of what it doesn’t say. Mendes speaks through the silences, the eyes of his actors and the film’s other texts. He forces his audience to think about war. And what could mean more than your own conclusions?