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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

War Stories

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

For as long as there's been a movie industry, filmmakers have been going to war. While most of these movies end up being anti-war, there has certainly been no shortage of pro-war efforts over the years either, ranging from an array of near-propaganda pictures made in the years leading up to America's involvement in World War II to John Wayne's Vietnam epic The Green Berets. Some filmmakers, including Sam Fuller and Oliver Stone, bring first-hand experience with them, but with the elimination of the draft, we'll be seeing fewer and fewer of those as time goes by. Not that military service is a mandatory requirement in this genre. Some of the most memorable war movies of all time, including Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket were made by men who never spent a day in uniform

Interestingly, while the nature of war itself has changed dramatically in the past decade or so, filmmakers have been by and large content to continue restaging the wars of the past. The first Gulf War was arguably the first of this new kind of modern war (at least for Americans) and for a while, 1999's Three Kings was the first and only movie to deal with it. As for the current Iraq War and its vague and amorphous stepbrother, the War on Terror, almost nothing was being said. Granted, the movie industry has never had much of a reputation as being a first responder to cultural change. But if movies about World War II and Vietnam could be produced while those conflicts were still being fought, surely filmmakers could tackle the current war if they really wanted to.

Slowly, the movie industry is beginning to acknowledge these new kinds of warfare. The three movies in this column represent a wide range of responses, from big-budget studio fare to maverick independent to documentary. They look at the changing face of war from totally different angles and all three are well worth checking out.


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Jarhead: Collector's Edition

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2005 (2006) - Universal

Based on Anthony Swofford's book detailing his own experiences in the Gulf War, Sam Mendes' Jarhead seemed to disappoint a lot of viewers upon its release last fall including, to some extent, me. This may be due in large part to preconceived expectations of what we assumed the movie would be. With American troops once again in Iraq, no doubt many people were hoping for a movie that would make explicit parallels between the two conflicts. Anyone wanting to see such a film was in for a let-down. But divorced from any preconceived notions, Jarhead holds up and indeed plays much better the second time around.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Swoff, a fresh-faced Marine recruit who begins to doubt his decision to volunteer the second he arrives in boot camp. Once he survives basic training, he is attached to a sniper unit under the command of Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx). It's here that Swoff begins to come into his own. He's partnered up with Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), a spotter with a shady past who seems to thrive on the intensity of the Corps, and together they rise to the top of their unit. When the U.S. declares war on Iraq, the troops ship out, eager for the chance to finally put their skills to the test. But instead of the action their fathers and grandfathers saw in earlier wars, these Marines get endless days of waiting in the hot desert sun. They train. They patrol. They hydrate. And they wait.

What makes Jarhead unique is that it's one of the few war movies to feature virtually no combat. The biggest action on screen comes from another movie, when the Marines pump themselves up by watching Apocalypse Now. Like Swoff, Mendes isn't particularly interested in the behind-the-scenes politics that start the war. Whether we think the war is right or wrong is irrelevant. The Marines have been trained to do a job and that job is to fight in whatever war they're told to fight in. For the most part, Jarhead is a movie about unreleased testosterone and bottled-up aggression. Like many great war films, Jarhead is based on a paradox. The military trains its soldiers to kill, to get past whatever societal blocks tell us not to take another's life and be ready to fight for your country. But given the realities of modern warfare, it's very unlikely that someone trained to be a sniper will ever get a chance to do their job.

Gyllenhaal is terrific as Swoff, transforming before our eyes from a confused recruit to an active but inactive sniper. Since the audience is seeing the movie from his perspective, it would have been easy to turn Swoff into a bland, sugar-coated character with a perfectly tuned moral compass. The filmmakers deserve a lot of credit for making him much more interesting and believable than that. Jamie Foxx is equally good as Sykes, delivering a restrained and commanding performance. Peter Sarsgaard isn't necessarily the first person I'd have thought of to play Troy but he mostly pulls it off, with only a few moments where his sleepy-eyed softness seems to work against the character.

Universal has released two versions of Jarhead, a movie-only version and a two-disc collector's edition. I received the single-disc version for review and have in fact never actually seen a copy of the collector's edition anywhere. I don't have a problem with studios simultaneously releasing two versions of a movie like this. I actually think it's a pretty good idea. But when you have a better chance of spotting Bigfoot than the collector's edition, something's amiss. A similar disappearing act recently took place with Universal's two-disc release of Steven Spielberg's Munich. I have no idea what happened with these releases, whether they were recalled or if they were just pressed in such ridiculously small amounts they became instant collector's items, but I do think that if a dual release is announced, both versions should be readily available for at least nine months to a year. After all, the whole point of doing it this way is to offer people more options, not less.

At any rate, the movie looks and sounds great on the single-disc version with Roger Deakins' incredible cinematography being given an outstanding showcase. The extras on the single-disc version are divided into three different sections but basically they're all extended or deleted scenes. Swoff's Fantasies show a handful of deleted fantasy sequences, understandably trimmed but interesting to look at on their own. We also get the complete interview sequences seen only in truncated form in the finished film, as well as a selection of additional deleted scenes including an alternate opening featuring Sam Rockwell as Swoff's uncle. All of these feature an optional and illuminating commentary by Mendes and editor Walter Murch. The film itself carries two commentary tracks. Sam Mendes goes solo on the first one, and while it isn't captivating throughout, it does have enough to offer to make it worth a listen. The second track, a writers' commentary with Anthony Swofford and screenwriter William Broyles Jr., is more disappointing. Broyles is a Vietnam veteran himself and I'd hoped that this track would feature more discussion between Swofford and Broyles comparing their differing military experiences. There is some of that but too much time is spent complimenting Mendes on his skills as a filmmaker. Consider this track a missed opportunity.

If you were disappointed by Jarhead during its theatrical release, give it another shot on DVD. It's a compelling soldier's eye view of war unlike most of its predecessors in the genre. Brimming with dark humor and gripping drama, Jarhead feels like an authentic portrayal of the downtime that consumes most of the time of the average troop. It's well worth a second look.

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Single-Disc Edition - Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/C+

The War Within

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The War Within
2005 (2006) - Magnolia

If you've heard any of the pundits' commentary on the war on terror on the talk radio or cable news circuit in the years since 9/11, odds are you've heard the observation that we are fighting an enemy we do not understand. True enough and it's in this area that film and literature can actually make a difference. Unlike say, World War I or II, in this case, we don't all seem to be following the same rules of engagement. Since it's impossible to talk to a suicide bomber after the fact, one of the only ways to even begin to understand what they're feeling and thinking prior to the act is through art.

In The War Within, co-writer Ayad Akhtar plays Hassan, a Pakistani student snatched off the streets of Paris by American intelligence and interrogated in prison over suspected ties to terrorism. Three years later, Hassan arrives in New York, ready to carry out an attack against Grand Central Station. While awaiting instructions from his cell, Hassan moves in with a childhood friend who immigrated to the States and is now living the American dream with his sister, his wife and their two children. Like the Marines in Jarhead, Hassan is stuck with plenty of time with nothing to do but wait and reflect.

The War Within is a tricky film, stopping short of turning Hassan into a sympathetic character. We're not meant to sympathize with him but we are meant to empathize with him, an important distinction that too many writers and filmmakers fail to make when dealing with subjects like this. As an audience, we feel what Hassan feels, which means that over the course of 90 minutes, we are dropped into an extremely conflicted worldview that sees things in strict terms of black and white. Director/co-writer Joseph Castelo deliberately leaves Hassan's past somewhat vague, although he heavily suggests that his radicalization took place in prison (a dramatically useful shortcut that I think is realistically unlikely). Hassan's experiences are dramatically countered with those of the people around him. His friend Sayeed (a moving performance by Firdous Bamji) represents Muslims who have thrived in the West, raising a family and despite some misgivings, loving the country that has given him so much. Sayeed's fate is made all the more tragic by his actions. Meanwhile, Hassan's terrorist contact Khalid (Charles Daniel Sandoval) is "corrupted" by his time spent alone in America, drinking and going to strip clubs because he thinks he should expose himself to the evils he's fighting against. The fact that we end up viewing Khalid as a coward is a measure of how well the film succeeds at putting us in Hassan's shoes.

Magnolia presents the HD-shot film in a very good 16x9 enhanced transfer. It's a great-looking movie that demonstrates how good HD-video can look in the right hands. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is also above average, with the multilingual dialogue subtitled in English (the subtitles aren't optional... Spanish subtitles are). The extras aren't plentiful but what is here is quite interesting. Castelo and Akhtar deliver a thoughtful and informative commentary touching on everything from the technical aspects of the film to their personal thoughts on Muslim extremism. Also included are eight deleted and alternate scenes. Some of these are fascinating because they present a version of the movie which could have been much different from the one we have. They were correct to make the changes but for anyone interested in how a film can evolve over time, these are very instructive.

All wars rob individuals of their identities to some extent. This is part of the reasoning behind the uniforms and the haircuts. It's easier to fight if you're fighting a nameless and faceless mass instead of another human being not all that different from yourself. In fighting terrorism, this is even more apparent. By the time the terrorist has done their job, they're gone. The War Within is a valuable exploration into the mind of one such man. By the film's end, we may still not be able to comprehend why he was compelled to do such a thing. But we do feel the forces that went into the decision and understand that in the end, it was an individual choice and a difficult one at that. Perhaps through understanding those forces and dealing with them on an individual basis, we can help people like Hassan make different choices in the future.

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/B-

Why We Fight

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Why We Fight
2005 (2006) - Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

I seem to get into trouble whenever I write about documentaries for this site, which may be one reason why the powers-that-be here seem to find it so amusing to have me cover them. In fact, I decided to do this column partly to save you all some time and let you get all your angry e-mails out of the way in one fell swoop. I'm braced for the worst over Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight, a sober, illuminating and often disturbing look at American involvement in conflicts since President Dwight Eisenhower gave a prescient farewell address warning against the growing influence of what he dubbed the "military-industrial complex".

George W. Bush's controversial decision to lead America into the current Iraq War has created a veritable cottage industry of agenda-loaded documentary films, from Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 to Robert Greenwald's Uncovered. Why We Fight takes a broader view than most of those films. This isn't to say that Jarecki is without an agenda of his own, nor is it to suggest that having an agenda is a bad thing. All the indignant chest-thumping that goes on about how these movies aren't "objective" has always struck me as ridiculous. Every filmmaker brings their own history and perspective to whatever they're working on. Some are just more willing to admit it than others.

For his part, Jarecki takes a look at American foreign policy filtered through the perspective of who benefits financially from it. As he sees it, the United States over the past fifty-plus years has established a global empire to rival that of Britain or Rome. It's a difficult conclusion to argue against, although many would object to the term "empire". One could argue that America has been a reluctant empire-builder. We're kind of the Spider-Man of global empires. With great power comes great responsibility and we've vowed to use our powers only for good. But since America is a country and not just one conflicted teenager, there are plenty of people who have been trying to have it both ways, as a force for freedom and democracy as well as a license to print money.

Coupled with the vast profits of the defense industry is a new reliance on cutting-edge technology. Some of Jarecki's most compelling material comes in the discussion of the so-called "smart bombs" used in both Iraqi conflicts. These weapons hit their targets with amazing accuracy... but also require the enemy to cooperate with them to some extent. All the target needs to do is leave the targeted building as soon as they learn that jets are in the air, making the bombs much more dangerous to civilians than to their intended targets.

Jarecki interviews a wide cross-range of people to get his points across, from notorious leftie Gore Vidal to Senator John McCain. Some of these interviews are framed as fact when they really should be presented as opinion (but then again, if you're ready to just take Gore Vidal's word on the reasons for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima without doing any more research on the subject, you should probably read more history anyway). The best interviews are with less celebrated subjects, including Wilton Sekzer, a retired NYC cop who lost a son in the World Trade Center and Karen Kwiatkowski, a military careerist who left her job at the Pentagon when she could no longer believe in what she was doing.

Sony's DVD is top-notch across the board, with superior sound and picture and a host of illuminating extras. Extra scenes go into further detail on such subjects as the Eisenhower presidency and Frank Capra's Why We Fight, the series of WWII propaganda films that lent Jarecki his title. The extended character scenes give us more time with interviewees like Wilton Sekzer and William Solomon, a young man who we see signing up for military service. Audience Q&A segments are provided from screenings at festivals and schools, as are two TV appearances by Jarecki on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Charlie Rose. Finally, Jarecki is joined by Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson for an illuminating audio commentary which raises even more thought-provoking questions.

I personally like Michael Moore and his work, but understand totally why many people do not. Fortunately, Jarecki is no Michael Moore and Why We Fight is not Fahrenheit 9/11. He asks the right questions, not to validate his own thoughts but because he's genuinely interested in hearing the answers. Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions about why we fight, it's a question that must be asked every time we march to war.

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/A-

Adam Jahnke

Adam Jahnke - Main Page
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