Don’t walk into Jarhead expecting a “Saving Private Ryan”-like war film filled with explosions and battle scenes. It is much more deliberate and thought provoking. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) focuses on inner struggle amidst a bland and unsettling environment. Jarhead is the film adaptation of Marine Anthony Swofford’s bestselling novel about his experience during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. Jake Gyllenhaal, in his most accomplished performance yet, plays Swofford. We see him enter boot camp as a naïve young man with no place else to go. The softness is quickly beaten out of him under the tutelage of Staff Sergeant Siek (Jamie Foxx). He becomes a Scout Sniper and is teamed up with a Spotter, Allan Troy (Peter Sarsgaard). The two men bond, along with their platoon, while going through the rigors of training. Soon they are hardnosed Marines lusting for combat and glory. They get their chance when Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait. They’re shipped off to war, but what they find is totally unexpected.
The tagline for Jarhead is aptly titled “Welcome to the Suck”. The “suck” is what the Marines call their long travail in the desert. They wait four months under the oppressive sun before the war begins. They are incessantly bored. They are forced to drill constantly. It isn’t long before the mental and physical fatigue begins to wear them down. We see the personal turmoil that each man faces. Swofford’s girlfriend sends him letters about meeting other men. He is consumed by jealousy and loneliness. Mendes films these scenes in painstaking detail; nothing about the surroundings is lost. He wants to show that the actual combat is not the only hurdle the soldiers have to face.
Jarhead is very similar to Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” in its approach to war. It doesn’t glorify it, but really hammers in how confusing and uncertain battle can be. I think these scenes will either grab audiences or lose them. People who want, or are expecting a lot of action will be disappointed. Mendes is going for realism here. The shots of the burning oil wells, especially at night, are spectacularly done. There is an interesting exchange between Siek and Swofford that lucidly sums up why anyone would volunteer to be in such a place. The experience, positive or negative, is worth it because it’s extraordinary.
Mendes and his fine ensemble cast do a terrific of job taking the shine off military life. Jarhead will be seen primarily as an anti-war film and there is a veiled stab at the current Gulf War. But I don’t see it as casting any dispersions on the Marines or the US military. It just portrays it in a realistic way. Jarhead shows the difficulty in becoming a Marine, but it also shows the camaraderie and sense of duty. The men establish a real bond that will follow them their entire lives.
Entertainment value is a must in any film and that is the one area that Jarhead comes up short. It simply drags in too many places. It needed to be tightened up a bit for better pacing. That being said, Jarhead is a good, smart film. It brilliantly recreates an experience without romanticizing it or succumbing to melodrama. Mendes proves again that he’s got the talent to be unique in an art form filled with copycats. Jake Gyllenhaal really arrives with this performance. It shows his emotional range and ability to play it tough. Jarhead is certainly a far cry from his next film, “Brokeback Mountain”, where he plays a gay cowboy in love with Heath Ledger in the 60’s.