Saturday, November 12, 2005

A.O. Scott Goes Blind (or Bringing the Fight to Jarhead’s Enemies)

Based on Anthony Swofford's memoir of his days as a Marine during the first Gulf War, Sam Mendes's Jarhead is as frustrating for viewers hoping to get their war on as it is for the grunts languishing in its movie desert. But all that sand and sun seems to have also blinded some of our sharpest film critics:

Unlike the war films it references throughout, Jarhead has no genuine political consequence, mounting a view of military masculinity that deflects the comedic and moral nuance satires like Three Kings and M*A*S*H bravely and happily embrace. Given how strongly the film insists on striking its testosterone pose, Mendes might say he's too cool for political thought.—Ed Gonzalez, Slant

By forthrightly announcing its cinematic reference points (recruits are later shown whooping it up to the Wagner-backed helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now and settling in to watch The Deer Hunter), the film instantly disarms those who might otherwise be inclined to take it to task for cribbing, just as it shows how young soldiers actually took inspiration from those classics. But forcibly reminding the audience of its forebears has the simultaneous negative effect of spotlighting the picture's own lack of comparable boldness and invention. Nope, the Gulf War was no Vietnam, and Jarhead is no Platoon.—Todd McCarthy, Variety

Let’s put aside the tackiness of comparing wars as if looking over a chart of domestic grosses. That’s Variety—and insular Ho’wood—for you… As for the often laser-coherent Gonzalez, he’ll probably come around on a second viewing. The “testosterone pose” he spies is similar to ones struck in Dr. Strangelove. Was Kubrick making a recruitment film?

Jarhead easily trumps the Vietnam standards Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket by documenting not loss of innocence but the discovery of it. The flattering lies of pop culture have deluded Jarhead's young Marines into believing that third-grade innuendo can charm a stewardess; that something magical happens when you reach the ninth level of the video game Metroid. Swofford’s cynicism and adolescent priorities fall away at the sight of actual civilian casualties. Still, the urge to consummate his training with a confirmed kill persists. Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal), the sniper, and Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), his spotter, might as well be the frustrated virgins in American Pie. When an officer calls off what would have been the duo’s first killing, Troy begs him to reconsider with a drawn, weary affect that suggests a chronic case of blue balls. In a movie full of opportunities for homoerotic readings, this scene is a rhapsodic anti-climax.

As a "true" story, Jarhead is naturally restrained from too much “invention,” but doesn’t the film’s rigorous fidelity to daily military routine count as bold? Three Kings was an entertaining Gulf War tall tale, but it had to haul in the trucks, gold and grenades for a rollicking caper plot. Jarhead has more in common with William Styron’s 1954 novella The Long March—a blistering shot of documentary prose that rejuvenates the cliche' couplet “lean, mean." The book details every blister and bruise (physical and spiritual) an aging Marine endures during a forced 36-mile march. Styron captures the sensation of a soldier falling fast out of love with the military.

That’s the flavor of Jarhead—the memoir and the movie. Swofford is more expansive than Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr., since the film mostly sticks to Swofford’s camp-to-desert P.O.V. as closely as The Long March jogs along with it's protagonist. Even a key scene that slips out of Swoff’s shoes—to watch him walk up to a group of nomads who may or may not be enemy fighters—promptly steps into those of his platoon mates. Mendes holds on a wide shot over a Marine’s shoulder as Swoff approaches the caravan on eggshells. The director keeps even the sound at an accurate distance, so that when Swoff panics and draws his rifle on one of the Arabs, his shouts are realistically, terrifyingly faint, swallowed up by the carpet of desert. Three Kings has such moments, but they’re crowded and somewhat undermined by less inspired slapstick, satire and adventure movie tropes.

Jarhead has an oddly amorphous and inconclusive feeling to it. We never do find out who Tony is, and his best friend, Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), who shifts back and forth between sanity and hysteria, is a mystery, too.—David Denby, New York Magazine

Critics complain about the generic quality of Swoff’s fellow grunts—each seems to fit a neat stock type. But it’s hard to imagine men so young coming through training so severe and depersonalizing seeing each other in anything but primary colors. In any male fraternity built upon punishing tests of strength and discipline, the members consciously reveal only those aspects of their lives that project confidence or bolster pride. Mendes shows how, for men barely out of their teens, raised in the consumerist bubble of Reagan-era America, this often means advertising one’s self as a combination of the Terminator and John Holmes. A killing—and fucking—machine.

Fellow Marines exist only to test or shore up this perception. Jarhead the movie illustrates how this mindset, if stoked by training but never allowed a proportionate physical outlet, will lead to a mental collapse. And the breakdowns in Jarhead are beautiful demolitions. Driven mad by a stateside girlfriend he fears is unfaithful and an interminable wait for desert combat he’s been drilled to believe will be epic, Swofford takes it out on a fellow sniper. He unleashes a torrent of rage on geeky Private Fergus (Brian Geraghty), who recently got him in trouble with the Sarge. Gyllenhall draws out every note of fury as Swoff threatens to blast the kid at point-blank range. Incredible. But the real shocker comes in the followup: Suffocated by shame, Gyllenhaal delivers perhaps the most torturously sincere apology in film history. No kidding.

Jarhead is a movie that walks up to some of the most urgent and painful issues of our present circumstance, clears its throat loudly and says nothing.—A.O. Scott, New York Times

Critics were also exasperated at the film’s apparent refusal or failure to give the events a post-911 political context. Perhaps it's Swoff's daydreamy, not-so-damning narration. The effect is closer to Terence Malick's Thin Red Line free associations and Michael Herr's amoral, thousand-yard prose in Full Metal Jacket than to Oliver Stone's straightforward moralizing in the narration for Platoon or Herr's insubordinate military cynicism in Apocalypse Now. But in practicing subjective storytelling so stringently, Mendes allows us to draw our own conclusions from a series of events and actions rather than from Swoff's ambiguous, poetic narration. Much appreciated. My understanding of all the hazing and ritual humiliation, for instance, is as a dress rehearsal for Abu Ghraib. In fact, contradicting himself a bit, Denby backs me up: “Broyles and Mendes are saying, I think, that men who are this casually abusive of one another’s bodies could slip, without much provocation, into sexually humiliating detained prisoners.”

A.O. Scott almost naively takes Troy's admonition, “No politics; we’re here,” as evidence of Mendes and Broyles’s lack of political conviction. But how did he miss the moment that immediately follows it, a look of uncertainty on Swoff’s face that speaks ten volumes? There’s a fair amount of windy prose in Mendes’s films, but its best ignored. Mendes works in images. More precisely, as an accomplished stage director, he works with human bodies arrayed in a frame as carefully designed as a stage set. Mendes is still making theater, to dazzingly cinematic effect. Jarhead’s most theatrical scene is also its quietest and most emotionally devastating. Swoff goes over a sand dune to relieve himself and finds his own private nightmare—remnants of a civilian caravan that U.S. air power has annihilated. Deakins bathes the scene in powdery diffused sunlight, and Mendes digs his heel gently but persistently into our throats: A trenchant composition renders Swoff a camouflaged doll in the center of a sandbox stained black with oil and wildly radiating blast patterns, dressed with debris and charred corpses. Its an awesome, awful display, but Mendes is just warming up. He gives us a closer view of Swoff exploring the carnage. Bits and pieces of horrific evidence caress the margins of the frame. A body whose face has been seared away beckons, seems to commiserate silently with Swofford. The stillness and harmony of these compositions are reminiscent of James Nachtwey’s war photos (see below). Serene madness.

Mendes’s images are his convictions, articulated in a bluesy whisper. To the degree that they are antiwar, these are political convictions indeed. It’s hard to imagine a sensitive soul coming away from this episode without a picture of war, all war, as pure terror. A woman at the screening I attended went away shaking and sobbing before the scene was over. Any film that destroys the notion of surgically precise war-making with such... surgical precision deserves far more consideration than dismissive blurbs by writers who should know better.

Images from Jarhead swiped from the official site. James Nachtwey's photos are from

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Good Boy

Cuba Gooding, Jr. is married to a white woman. To many black people for whom Jim Crow is more than funny name, this is a moral lapse on par with a cocaine habit. As fodder for black comedians, Gooding resides in the same section of the file cabinet as Tiger Woods, Wayne Brady and Taye Diggs. The third-rate movies he has made since a promising breakthrough in Boyz in the Hood, meanwhile, are good for bargain-basement laughs.

But is he any good?

This question doesn't seem to trouble even fellow black thespians like David Alan Grier, who once dissed Gooding's dubious achievements on a Jimmy Kimmel appearance. But in a media culture that praises an affectless poseur like Johnny Depp while dismissing a go-for-broke artist like Vincent Gallo, the question of Gooding’s actual talent is a complicated matter.

The short answer: He’s a comic genius with the innocence, pluck and vulnerability of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. In films like Snow Dogs, Rat Race and Boat Trip, Gooding is a silent film star (and, given each film’s abysmal dialogue, all the better.) With a rubber face that seems a cartoonist’s rendition of a handsome porter, Gooding doesn’t push an image of leading man suaveness or heroic bravado. So far, he has mostly gone for boyish slapstick, pathos and fear. Gooding’s characters suffer for their soft-hearted decency. Troy’s famous nervous breakdown in Boyz is the dramatic template for his comic characters—good guys pushed way too far. If he, not Ving Rhames, had offered Jack Lemmon his Golden Globe award, not one eyebrow would have risen. Lemmon could stretch exasperation across an entire movie without exhausting our patience. Gooding has the same comic gift. But where Lemmon’s thing was rumpled middle-aged sheepishness, Gooding’s genius is Boy Scout civility abused to the breaking point.

Only one factor paradoxically Americanizes and radicalizes Gooding at the same time: His skin color. Imagine Buster Keaton staging his underdog triumphs in the skin of a black man. If such films had been possible, they might have affected the American landscape and future as mightily as hurricane Katrina. “Birth of a Nation” reinvigorated the Klan; a black comic of Gooding’s fragile humanity could have dismantled it. Gooding may retch, squeal, mug and bulge his eyes, but he does not play buffoons. His characters are squares—what kids now call cornballs or birdheads. They wouldn’t even make the first cut of Damon Dash’s The Ultimate Hustler. In “The Fighting Temptations” Gooding plays a cornball who thinks he’s a hustler and is widely taken to be a corporate sellout. But over the course of a rote fish-out-of-water plot in which he ends up the leader of a Down South gospel choir, it becomes clear that he is simply afraid of losing out on the American Dream. He has lied about his education to get a rung on the corporate ladder. And at the height of his humbling reeducation as backwoods choirmaster, he abandons the group to help a company market malt liquor to the urban demographic (in an obvious but giddy little bit of satire).

We’ve seen this kind of hustler-goes-straight comedy a trillion times. Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and all their lesser spawn have helped racialize this kind of tale. But until Gooding, we hadn’t seen the implosive effect hustling one’s own race can have on the psyche. Watch Gooding in the boardroom attempting to convince himself as much as his fellow executives that the malt liquor plot is a good idea. Shakespearean.