The most fascinating scene in Jarhead, director Sam Mendes' adaptation of Marine sniper Anthony Swofford's Gulf War memoir, occurs on an American military base just before Swofford and his fellow "jarheads" are set to board a plane for Saudi Arabia.
Swofford (played by a beefy Jake Gyllenhaal) and his friends gather in a dark auditorium and sit rapt as the infamous "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence from Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War fever dream Apocalypse Now is projected. As American helicopters firebomb a Vietnamese village, the soldiers in the audience are whipped into a frenzy. What Coppola saw as sarcastic, horrified indictment, these men take as pornography, a vicarious thrill they hope to soon live. When the projector clicks off, the voice of an unseen commander bellows, "Get some, Marines!"
Jarhead is a vision of soldiers influenced by media images of another generation's war (the men gather during downtime in Kuwait to watch a tape of The Deer Hunter), as is confirmed by modern war docs such as Gunner Palace.
As soldiers of the Vietnam era sometimes went to battle with visions of John Wayne World War II movies only to find something far different, the Marines of Jarhead arrive in the desert with visions of Vietnam dancing in their heads, only to find the reality a case of hurry up and wait: training in the desert for six months as 500,000 troops are built up for a quick rout of a war.
The Gulf War "experience" as seen in Jarhead is a very isolated one. It's a film about a sniper who never fires at the enemy, where all U.S. casualties are the result of friendly fire, where the only Arab faces are seen on television, through the scope of a rifle, or blurred in the desert distance.
Jarhead's soldiers are all wound up with nowhere to go, and that lack of release drives them crazy. War, we've all been told, makes men mad. But Jarhead argues that, for those trained to kill, the absence of action is just as detrimental. So, the movie suggests, it isn't war that drives soldiers mad but the military.
This is, of course, a debatable notion. Jarhead would be more convincing if it wasn't as clearly influenced by other war movies as its characters are. Jarhead's opening drill-sergeant bit is clearly inspired by Full Metal Jacket, and the bleached-out sun-and-sand daytime cinematography and, especially, the Public Enemy-scored post-war celebration are straight from David O. Russell's Three Kings, a far superior Gulf War movie.
Three Kings is funnier and bolder, more analytical but less tortured. Its soldiers aren't tragic figures whose humanity has been corrupted as part of their training. I have about as much military experience as Mendes, best known for the flashy but hollow American Beauty, does, but my gut says Three Kings is the truer film.