The Gulf War. A group of Marines dig in for the night in a desert lit up orange with burning oil wells. Somebody starts playing The Doors, and Jake Gyllenhaal says, “That’s Vietnam music. Can’t we get our own fucking music?” Understandable frustration. These boys have grown up on Apocalypse Now and Platoon, and here they are in their war, out for glory, and all they get to do is tramp around in the 130 degree heat while the Air Force vaporizes every Iraqi man, woman, child, and camel for hundreds of miles in every direction, plus some U.S. troops too, by accident. Don’t they deserve to have their own fucking movie, too?
Of course they do. And this isn’t a bad one. Not as interesting as Three Kings, but a worthy addition to a scanty roster. Vietnam veterans suffered terribly because their war was so unpopular at home; these veterans suffer because while their war may have been brutally traumatic for them, it registered on the national consciousness as a painless and instantaneous victory. Mendes captures these kids’ frustrations very well. On the one hand, they’re eager for glory, on the other, they’ve completely absorbed the cynicism of the post-Vietnam era, and don’t quite believe that glory still exists.
Mendes sometimes overreaches in his efforts to add to the canon of seminal war movie scenes. In the eerily lit desert Gyllenhaal comes across an oil-covered horse with no rider, which is supposed to feel symbolic and resonant, I suppose, sort of like the dancing plastic bag in Mendes’s American Beauty. But the horse, like the bag, is a little overcooked for my taste.
But many scenes work pretty well, frequently thanks to Gyllenhaal, who I found surprisingly strong here. Near the end of the movie, the squad, having learned that the war has ended without their having had a chance to kill anyone, start firing their guns into the air, Gaza-style. It looks like a celebration, but it reminded me of the sad scene earlier, when Gyllenhaal tries to masturbate to a picture of his girlfriend and can’t perform.