‘That’s Vietnam music,’ shouts a Marine in 1992, during Operation Desert Storm, as The Doors blasts out of a helicopter, ‘we want our own music!’ Later, in a slightly too on-the-nose orgy, the frustrated victors (who have won the war without firing a shot) empty their guns into the air while jumping to ‘Fight the Power’ – one of several moments bound up in levels of irony, politics and pop culture.
Based on the memoir of Anthony Swofford, a Marine trained as a sniper, this can’t help but feel like a patchwork of scenes from other, mostly Vietnam-set movies. The basic training scenes not only reproduce shots, décor and character types from Full Metal Jacket but whole speeches (the ‘this is my rifle’ speech), which probably means things hadn’t much changed between Gus Hasford’s basic training and Anthony Swofford’s and Kubrick’s art directors did the same research as Sam Mendes’s. There’s a thread throughout the film about the way the Marines feed off movies about earlier wars: the call to fight (or not) in the Gulf comes in the middle of a rowdy base screening of Apocalypse Now (a friend who was in the Navy tells me they showed the film to troops on the voyage to Falklands War too). Coppola’s movie (theoretically antiwar and antimilitary) is practically worshipped by the grunts in the audience who repeat lines and gestures, sing along with ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and gloat over the onscreen deaths of the blasted villagers – evoking that speech in The Stunt Man about the director who made a blistering anti-war movie only to see recruitment rise in towns where it played. Later, when Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes across charcoal corpses of soldiers and civilians burned on the road out of Iraq he is more shaken – though, crucially, we’re too aware that this is a film like Apocalypse Now rather than taking place on a higher level of reality.
For all the observed details of Marine life and the unique situation of soldiers in the Gulf, this often pitches too broad – with moments that seem designed to be hailed by future audiences letting off steam rather than feel real (Jamie Foxx gets the ‘I love this job’ Best Supporting Actor Oscar clip speech). The other problem, which makes this an anti-war film (as opposed to antiwar film), is that soldiers on the ground in Desert Storm were kept in a state of high preparedness, hopped up on stories of Saddam’s chemical weapons and fanatical Republican guard, but the war was fought almost entirely in the air. The climax comes when Swoff and his spotter (Peter Sarsgaard) are finally detailed to take a shot, hitting a couple of officers to forestall a ground battle, but take a few seconds too long to get radio authorisation before a higher-up countermands the order and sits back to watch an airstrike do the job in spectacular but messy form rather than with surgical precision, prompting a the spotter’s freakout breakdown at not being allowed to kill something.
As a Gulf War film, it’s less effective than Three Kings – though we get the Bagdad road burnout (white footprints on burned-black sand), flaming rigs raining oil on the soldiers and uneasy relations with barely-glimpsed locals. Mendes’s early Oscar has led him to some bad habits: check out the embarrassing bit with the Vietnam veteran on the bus as the guys come home, the hurried funeral and where-are-they-now coda, too many crying scenes, culture vulture bits with Marines reading Camus or Catch-22, and the casting of performers who’ve clocked previous wins or nominations (Chris Cooper). The usual macho bonding and brawling (jibes about unfaithful wives and girlfriends back home who are all sleeping with ‘Jody’ – a mythical civilian) turns in on itself because so much of the film takes place while nothing is really happening. A wife sends her husband a video of The Deer Hunter, which the whole platoon sit down to watch, only to find that after the credits she’s taped herself having sex with the next-door neighbour in revenge for the husband’s past infidelity (Swoff is crass enough to suggest watching it again – though I was more concerned that these guys wouldn’t be able to take the long, pre-war first hour of the Cimino film). A football game in the desert heat in chemical weapons gear staged for a journo turns into a mock gay porn-film orgy which is perhaps this film’s one new addition to war movie lore.