In 2005 and 2006, American cinema basked in an era of so-called political cinema, with films including Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, Lord of War and Munich appearing to tackle hot social issues within popular commercial formats.
These filmmakers frequently refer to the '70s as a decade in their national cinema that they wish to emulate, as they try to recapture the combination of stylistic freedom, liberal comment and raucous entertainment that characterised, for example, Robert Altman's career in that era.
However, there is a certain risk factor missing from all these recent films. They set out, essentially, to flatter the supposedly enlightened viewer – to tell him or her what they already know or believe, such as that "war is hell" or that "revenge killing is bad".
War is a particular boom era in this half-baked revival – not necessarily any current war, but perhaps one from the past that allows the obligatory allegorical comment on the present-day situation. The Gulf War serves this purpose for director Sam Mendes in Jarhead, the adaptation of a memoir by US Marine Tony Swofford (played well by Jake Gyllenhaal).
Like many contemporary war films since the success of Apocalypse Now (1979) and the rise of Oliver Stone, Jarhead chooses to depict war from a particular point of view – the experience of the soldier in the trenches, or on the front line. This is both a boon and a trap for liberal filmmakers like Mendes. The soldier's view is limited: our noses are rubbed in the squalid conditions, the brutalising training sessions (as in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket ), the over-pumping of the macho creed, the general descent into paranoia and hallucination.
But the solider knows nothing of the "bigger picture" of war, as he either clings to or disavows his own patriotism, and the film thus renders itself unable to suggest any wider, explanatory context for anything we are seeing. Organised war turns men into animals, and probably reflects badly on the administration that sends them off to such horror: that is all this film has to say.
Mendes (American Beauty , Road to Perdition ) is not a terribly interesting filmmaker. His best work is with actors, and here he creates a vivid ensemble of types: Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), the cool, seemingly rational guy secretly obsessed with "making a kill"; bullish Sergeant Sykes (Jamie L. Foxx playing against type); the enraged patriot, Fowler (Evan Jones); and the proud Cuban American, Escobar (Laz Alonso).
But Mendes smothers the gritty events of the scenario with a predictable play-list of classic rock tracks (by The Doors, T Rex, Talking Heads, Public Enemy) – each of which, sadly, usually brings back memories of a better movie in which these same tunes were featured. And he sticks doggedly to a Kubrick-derived geometric visual style, all head-on angles and desaturated colours.
Finally, he has to depend on voice-over readings from Swofford's book to pound home the points that were already perfectly clear from the first minutes of the film.
© Adrian Martin February 2006