Sam Mendes on the creation of a different kind of war movie
For months, director Sam Mendes has been toiling at an editing facility in New York City. He’s been shaping and reshaping the voice-over narration and fiddling with precise gradations of bleached-out imagery on the way to a final cut of Jarhead, an account of what one group of U.S. Marine Corps troops went through in the 1991 Gulf War. With only about a week to go before the movie’s publicity junket, Mendes finally okayed a finished print. Now, near the close of a three-day barrage of interviews in Los Angeles, he sounds like he’s got postpartum blues. It’s one thing to whip your film into shape in comparative privacy. It’s another to send your baby out into the hard world.
”I was sitting in a radio junket,” he says, holding forth in his hotel suite. ”The first seven questions — I counted — were about how I thought the movie would open at the box office. It’s pretty depressing. What am I supposed to say? You’re the best ones to judge that. But also, who f—ing cares? I just spent 18 months of my life on this movie, and the big question you’re asking is whether I’m worried that the war [in Iraq now] is going to affect the opening weekend of Jarhead? That’s insane. When I think about the war, the last thing I’m worried about is my opening weekend.”
Which is not to say Mendes isn’t worried about his opening weekend. An Oscar winner for his 1999 film debut American Beauty (which grossed $130 million and took Best Picture), the 40-year-old Cambridge-educated Brit initially made his name as a young, hotshot stage director. He’s still a relative newbie as a filmmaker, and his excellent Hollywood adventure, which continued with 2002’s reasonably successful Road to Perdition, could always go bye-bye. ”Black Hawk Down took $100 million,” he points out a while later, in a moment of hopeful comparison. Directed by Ridley Scott, that 2001 film dramatized a botched 1993 mission by the U.S. military in Somalia (and its final domestic gross actually topped out at $109 million). ”But that was an action movie. This is not.”
Indeed, it’s hard to classify Jarhead, and thus to sell it. Part coming-of-age story, part military-training horror show, part bawdy male-bonding romp, and part poetic meditation on the murderous impulses of men at war, the movie doesn’t offer much in the way of conventional, audience-pleasing payoffs. It’s about being worn down by fear in a combat zone where the war could start at any minute, but doesn’t in fact commence for months after deployment. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a grunt who’s molded into an expert sniper, then left with no chance to strut his stuff because the Gulf War is over in a flash. Peter Sarsgaard is his loyal, hard-nosed sniper-scout partner, but it’s not a warm-fuzzy, buddy-buddy kind of relationship — no cute clips to push on that score — while Jamie Foxx, the Oscar-winning star of Ray, takes a peppery supporting turn as a tough-love sergeant.
As journalists take in the film for the first time, Mendes is suddenly realizing that misperception could be an issue. ”I can feel people talking about the movie they expected to see,” he says. ”They expected a much more specific political commentary about what’s going on in Iraq right now. I think they were shocked that it was so comedic, and that it was so specifically about Desert Storm.” The director, in turn, has been taken aback to see prerelease articles writing off Jarhead‘s impact sight unseen. ”I’ve read pieces about why this movie’s already in danger of becoming irrelevant,” he reports, looking incredulous. ”That the problem is, real-life events are going to overtake it. Huh? It’s about Operation Desert Storm! How can events overtake it?”