Magazine article The Christian Century

Boy Soldiers

Magazine article The Christian Century

Boy Soldiers

Article excerpt

IF VIETNAM, with its baffling, Venus-flytrap landscape, is the perfect dramatic background for an existential drama, the Gulf War would appear to be an ideal setting for an existential comedy: so many servicemen all suited up but with nowhere to go and nothing to do. That's how David O. Russell's great 1999 film Three Kings began. It took the hormone-crazed young Americans in the gulf as its starting point and developed a quest story in which the search for illicit riches shifted into a moral imperative to save the lives of a band of nomads on the run from Saddam Hussein.

By contrast, Jarhead, directed by Sam Mendes, has little humor and no dramatic or moral arc. It depicts a generation of young marines who are evidently so stunted by a sexed-up, video-game culture that they're beyond being educated. They're frat boys trained to channel insensitivity into violence--and the war is over before they even get to shoot.

The notion that America is morally vacant and ultimately psychotic underlies all of Mendes's movies. The trouble is, his America isn't a place where any of us has actually been. His vision of life in the suburbs, American Beauty (which came out the same year as Three Kings), where sexually frustrated executives take jobs at McDonalds and smoke weed all day and misunderstood teenage girls fall in love with their stalkers, doesn't even work as black comedy because it is so insanely inaccurate about its subject matter.

His follow-up, Road to Perdition, is a threadbare gangster melodrama in which every violent confrontation is pumped up to imply that it is the American dream that is under attack. Mendes wants to make grandiose statements, but he falls into left-wing cliches. Jarhead's tone of righteous indignation will work only for moviegoers who have never seen one of the two dozen or so Vietnam pictures that came out between the late 1970s and early "90s. …

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