Sam Mendes directs a film about the US Marines in the first Gulf War in 1991, a war which lasted only four days, but for which over 500,000 US troops were deployed in the desert, some of them waiting for six months before they saw any action.
This is not an action movie. The Gulf War did not provide filmmakers with as much material as the Vietnam war. One wonders whether there will ever be as many movies about it. Mendes certainly draws on the conventions of the Vietnam film: boot camp (Full Metal Jacket, Tigerland), platoon life (Platoon, Hamburger Hill), life back home and after the war (Born on the Fourth of July, We Were Soldiers); but it never really outdoes any of its precursors.
The main flaw may be the novel on which the film is based. Simply not enough happens. One might therefore expect a deeper exploration of character, a greater sympathy with the "jarheads", as they are called (seemingly because their shavenn heads resemble glass jars; but, according to Wikipedia, the term comes from the Mason Jar Company, which manufactured the Marines' helmets for WWII). This never develops: the characters are too familiar, a little wooden and stereotyped. The boredom of the wait in the desert is never made really apparent: all there is is the occasional onscreen graphic about precisely how long they have been in the desert and how many troops there now are. Then when the Marines start to lose their minds, it's not wholly plausible. (This may be deliberate, however: an attempt to show the inexplicability of a soldier's reactions when living in a war zone).
What Mendes does with the material - together with his cinematographer Roger Deakins - is commendable. It is a beautiful film to look at. The stark desert provides some memorable images of the vast flatness - the Iraqi enemy (whom we or the Marines rarely, if ever, see) somewhere in the distance. When the oil wells are set on fire there is an eerie, infernal blackness in the glow of night, and the soldiers leave white footprints in the oil-soaked sand. Most of this, however, you can see in the trailer, which promises much more than the feature film delivers. Even the two great moments of potential tension fall flat: one never really believes the worst could happen.
It's difficult to know whom to blame for the film's shortcomings. Is modern warfare just too clinical to provide canon fodder for the movie camera? Were the book and the adaptation too faithful to fact, not willing to fictionalize in order to create drama and a more remarkable story? Does the film rely too much on Marine movie folklore to convey how much it means for an American to serve in the Corps? (There is a raucous scene just after the announcement that they are going to war when the soldiers watch the "The Ride of the Valkyries" sequence from Apocalypse Now to build up morale, cheering and whooping like a football crowd when the choppers descend on a Vietcong village, thirsty for enemy blood and their own opportunity to kill.)
A considerable part of the movie's message is how dispensable the footsoldier was in that war. Their presence in the desert was more symbolic than anything else: most of the fighting was done by precision aircraft bombing; there was no need for hand-to-hand combat or even scout snipers. Most soldiers got through the war without ever having to fire their rifles and without being in any serious danger. In fact, the only two Marine deaths in the movie occur during a training exercise and with friendly fire. And yet the war still ruined the lives of many of those who survived it.
The film begins and ends with a potentially striking voice-over - presumably transferred directly from the book by Anthony Swofford; but what's in the middle makes the conclusion weak and cursory - unjustified even - because the promise of how one's life is changed when one picks up a rifle is not fully articulated.
Nugget: on the whole a little disappointing - never really making the most of the talented cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, and a number of strong actors in supporting roles. Refreshing, however, to find that not everything that happens (friendly fire, a bombed convoy of refugees, the death on return home) has to be pedagogically explained.
I used part of this review to ping Blogcritics.