Suffocation exists on all kinds of mediums. Sam Mendes’ Jarhead gives us a glimpse of it on the wavelength of the army medium.
The time is circa late 1980s. Iraq invades Kuwait and troops are sent into the Arabian Peninsula as a part of Operation Desert Shield. Anthony Swofford is one of such marine recruits. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Anthony is reminiscent of the confused twenty-something wanting to matter but not knowing how – a guy we all tend to know. The film pushes this guy’s guy relatable factor with him. Anthony was supposed to go to college, but “got lost on the way.” He has a complicated family. A cute girlfriend. He was riding the mediocrity of budding adulthood. Mediocrity was stifling and not enough.
Thus came his plunge into the testosterone overloaded microcosm of the army. Sergeants scream in his face, meatheads size each other up. There is no feminine energy to calm the violent thrashing waves of a couple hundred men into a quieter ripple. A makeshift bash board is thrown up with pictures of the men’s women who’ve wronged them while they were away. Male energy is squashed up with no release in the middle of a desert.
Jarhead gives audiences the slice of life film if a slice of life involves substituting sand for trees, chronic masturbation for lovers, agonizing heat for seasons, testosterone heavy brouhahas for twenty-something friendly debauchery. Its strength is capturing the madness that drives these perfectly capable men into rapidly incontrollable nuttiness. We see this clearly as Anthony, once twinkly-eyed and feeble speeched, tantrums his way like a caged gorilla throughout the latter half of the film. Months without war play after mindlessly repetitive remedial training has created trigger-happy monsters of child-men.
The psychological effects of atmosphere suffocation are terrifyingly pervasive, seeping through even the most rational like a weed that won’t stop growing. But even so, we see these same men with weeds once choking their psyches eventually return to their lives. Diplomas are received; lovers are reunited; babies are born. It’s as if their time in Operation Desert Shield was a bad dream fading from their memories as everyday life took course. But – at least – mediocrity no longer felt so bad.
Written by Dara Kim