'Jarhead' and the Attraction of War

The new film Jarhead tells the story of a marine sniper in the first Gulf War, who never fires a shot. Jacki Lyden talks with director Sam Mendes about why he chose to make the movie, which is based on Anthony Swofford's memoir with the same title. Mendes says that he wanted to explore why soldiers are drawn to war, even those who oppose it.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

A soldier goes to war and returns home never the same. That might be the one common experience of all wars, and yet, like fingerprints, each soldier's war is uniquely his or her own. In the film "Jarhead," a new Marine recruit takes us on a torturous inner path through a mine field of his own that begins as he sets down in a burning oil field in Saudi Arabia.

(Soundbite from "Jarhead")

Unidentified Marine #1: It's burning oil! It's burning oil, brother! I rich, Sykes. Richer than you.

Unidentified Marine #2: Shut your trap. It's poison. Come on.

Unidentified Marine #3: The earth is bleeding. But you'd better get used to it because we're going to be living in it.

LYDEN: Director Sam Mendes adapted "Jarhead," from the book by Anthony Swofford of the same name, a memoir of the first Gulf War, written from the perspective of a 20-year-old vet. Sam Mendes joins us now. Welcome.

Mr. SAM MENDES (Director, "Jarhead"): Thank you.

LYDEN: This soldier is a sniper. He's trained to be a sniper, but he never shoots a gun. Making a film about a sniper who never shoots a gun just from the get-go presents a certain kind of challenge.

Mr. MENDES: Perverse, really, isn't it? I mean, I think one of the attractions, strangely, of the book for me was that it in parts seems strange--almost unadaptable, but somehow it threw up, through this very impressionistic, non-linear approach, a series of incredibly memorable images and details that seemed to take me unexpectedly closer to war than any of the more conventional war memoirs that I'd read, and that was partly because the war itself was so utterly different from any war before or since. I mean, it's not my kind of bloody-minded decision to frustrate an audience with a story about a sniper who doesn't fire a shot. And this was a war that didn't allow the soldiers in a way to engage in a conventional way with the war that they were presented. It was, in many ways, a story that I read about what happens if you train a man to go to war and then you take away the war.

You know, I would like to think that what we're reaching for in the movie is a deeper truth which is about why men seek that experience and, you know, how it will always, however much you prepare yourself for the reality--how it will always defy you. And I think, of course, that's strangely at odds with what an audience for a movie demands, which is some kind of catharsis. And so, a lot of the film is playing with the idea of the catharsis that is or isn't available to the audience and the catharsis that is or isn't available to the characters.

LYDEN: Let's hear a little scene from "Jarhead," where Swofford has gotten into a little trouble with his commander, the staff sergeant.

(Soundbite from "Jarhead")

Mr. JAMIE FOX: (As Sergeant Siek) So do you have all of that unauthorized beverage out of your system?

Mr. JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (As Anthony Swofford) Yeah.

Mr. FOX: (As Sergeant Siek) Who's watch was that, Swoff?

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Anthony Swofford) It was mine.

Mr. FOX: (As Sergeant Siek) It was yours. But since you don't know how to handle responsibility, we are demoting you. You are now a private. You think you're the only one that's bored around here? Because when this war begins, and it will begin, I don't want you covering my ass.

LYDEN: Jamie Foxx, coming a long, long way from "Ray," and Swofford is played by Jake Gyllenhaal. He's an anti-hero. He contemplates suicide. He threatens another soldier. He watches his fellows insult local women, even desecrate Iraqi corpses. They're not valiant. They're not evil. That's how I read them.

Mr. MENDES: Well, I don't only want--people will say, `Oh, he's the anti-hero. I don't know quite know what that means, but I think that the difficulty with this movie and the difficulty with this material is that you are ultimately trying to make a movie that is shot through with deep ambivalence. Jake's character, Swoff, is someone who learns what he thinks about this war and all wars by living through it and clearly, by the end, does not want to be a Marine any longer. But he also encounters men who will always be Marines, at least until they're, you know--for as long as they're allowed to be.

LYDEN: Do you think we have something that we can learn or that would change our understanding of the current war in Iraq by revisiting the first Gulf War, as we do in "Jarhead"?

Mr. MENDES: Well, you know, it's very difficult to understand this Gulf War while it's going on. I think that one thing that the movie, I hope, goes to show along with the book is that it takes 10 years to 15 years to get some distance on a war. I mean, for example, it took Tony 10 years to write down his experiences. And there was another book called "Baghdad Express," a very good book. It took a decade for them to appear. They didn't appear six months afterwards or even during because to some degree they felt that the war they'd lived through wasn't important. So, for example, you have a scene at the end of this movie which I think is very, very crucial to the meaning of the film.

LYDEN: I think I know the scene you're going to say.

Mr. MENDES: Well, a Vietnam vet...

LYDEN: Yeah.

Mr. MENDES: ...steps onto the bus of the returning soldiers who are in the middle of celebrating their return, and this man is a shadow of his former self, a ghost, nothing, destroyed by a war 20 years earlier. But he is still proud to be an American and proud to have been a Marine and to have fought in Vietnam. And that to me is the most frightening thing. That, you know, you can see and do see men whose lives have been destroyed by it who still are thrilled that they did it. And that, to me, is this--there's the black hole. That's the abyss that we're staring into, is that a war calls--still calls to people, even those that hate it. Even those that have lived through it and ever had a vision of Hell still want on some level to return.

You know, here, again, you have a man like Tony Swofford who, you know, has not only come out and said, `I don't believe in what I did--was asked to do in that war and I don't believe in the Marine Corps, and yet I still--some part of me still would go back there now.' And the same for Bill Broyles, who wrote the screenplay. A Vietnam vet, you know, liberal as they come, ex-editor of Newsweek, you know, said to me, `I still miss my gun.' And I said, `What do you mean?' He said, `Well, I walk around the street and once you've had your gun in your hand, it's very difficult to walk around thereafter without it, back as a civilian.' And he, again...

LYDEN: Mike...

Mr. MENDES: ...would go back there in certain moods.

LYDEN: Well, Sam Mendes, thank you very much for speaking with us today. Sam Mendes' new movie is "Jarhead." Thanks again.

Mr. MENDES: Thank you, Jacki.

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