The War, the Book and the Movie: Anthony Swofford

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By David D'Arcy

"The look, the feel, the sound, the training, the desert."

Jarhead is all over the media, in the way that the war in Iraq is not. But the war in Iraq has been displaced in American news by a Bush crony withdrawing her name from consideration for the Supreme Court, and yet another Bush crony (even more of a Cheney crony, my purist friends would say) being indicted for lying to a grand jury. I guess lying to America about Weapons of Mass Destruction is a lower-grade offense. (Could we call it a lower than weapons-grade offense?) Anyway, entertainment news needs something more cataclysmic to be displaced, so the preview attention for Jarhead was non-stop. After all, we are talking about a film with Jake Gyllenhaal, the actor who is fighting against the curse of over-exposure, hoping not to become this year's Jude Law.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's lost count of how many films have been made about boy recruits hardened into killers. No realist expects too much from this kind of story. It's been done far too many times, and no one will confuse a Hollywood war movie with a work of the imagination.

It's a bit different in Jarhead, in part because the director, Sam Mendes, has a gift for drawing performances out of actors like Gyllenhall, Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper and Peter Sarsgaard - you forgive him for the staginess when it works - and because the dialogue of Jarhead, the war memoir by Anthony Swofford, jumps off the page. It hurls itself in explosions of profanity. If the conventional wisdom is that cinema is images moving at 24 frames a second on an exterior surface, and a novel is a written text that challenges the reader to create images in his head, then the experience you have when reading Jarhead is something in between. It's a long set of extended declamations, more of a spoken book, in your experience of it, than a written one. It's curious, but the narrator, Swofford, also vomits frequently. It's logical. He's really hurling.

Mendes and the screenwriter Bill Broyles (a Vietnam vet who was editor of Newsweek at 35 before he started writing screenplays and television) had to wrest the book away from Swofford's single voice to make the movie more of an ensemble performance than it would have been if they had been more faithful to the memoir. Who knows why? Maybe they thought the audience would find esprit de corps more plausible than lonely fear.

It's a coincidence that Jarhead was released soon after the US military death toll in Iraq passed 2000. It's not a coincidence that support for the war will decline if this film reaches the same audience that joins the Marines, even if the war on the screen is a war from 15 years ago.

Jarhead on screen is indeed reaching an audience, even if the film lacks much of a story. Swofford enters the Marines, undergoes the pro forma proto-sexual humiliation from his peers, bonds with the boys, and ships out to guard Saudi oil fields. Did you forget why you pay taxes?

War, as he experiences it, is waiting while training as a sniper, until Swofford's unit stumbles on a column of dead Iraqis who were slaughtered when they tried to flee north. There was nothing left to shoot for this sniper who longed to kill, nothing but an empty landscape that was either burning with Arabian sun or drenched by a petroleum rain after Saddam set the oil fields on fire.

When the Marines ship home and leave the Corps, we see them stacking cans at Safeway, or working the most ordinary jobs. Waiting again? It does make you wonder about that oft-repeated saying, "Support Our Troops."

Jarhead the film won't become a classic. It will remind you that teenagers die in our wars. Like most teenagers, those you'll see on the screen can be callous and dumb, and they certainly lack judgment. Then think for a second about the teenager in the White House. His Vietnam saga (which which still don't know all about) could be called "Full Dinner Jacket."

I spoke to Tony Swofford after a screening of Jarhead at the Tribeca Cinema in Manhattan.


Is Jarhead a realistic film?

I think so. Obviously, in the script and the movie there are some compressions, there are some amalgamations of characters, but the look, the feel, the sound, the training, the desert, the feeling of being a Marine, for me rings very realistically. It's a film, but as far as a film goes, as a narrative, trying to capture that space, especially the emotional psychological center, I think it succeeds quite well.

Did you have any role in the film at all?

I didn't have any official or contractual role, but everyone was concerned with me being pleased the with end result, and with feeling that it was an honest adaptation. Bill Broyles, who wrote the script, sent me drafts very early. He wanted my thoughts on them. If he had me saying something, or if he had someone else saying something he wouldn't have said, he wanted to know.

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