War is hell, and it’s probably never looked and felt the part more than in the scorching deserts of the Middle East . This is the ultimate destination of Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Donnie Darko”), whom we first meet as a bright eyed 19 year old fresh off the bus at Camp Pendleton. After grueling basic training under a fire breathing Drill Instructor, Swofford is drafted into sniper school by the fast talking Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx, “Collateral Damage”). After further grueling training, Swofford and his spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, ” Garden State “) learn to become one with their rifles, dreaming of “The JFK shot. The pink mist.” They get their chance when Iraq invades Kuwait , setting off the first Gulf War and sending Swofford and company to the US military staging area in Saudi Arabia for their first war.
Based on the real Anthony Swofford’s best-selling memoir of the same name, “Jarhead” isn’t the first movie to tell us that war is hell, but while most war movies give us the horrors of combat action, “Jarhead” presents the horrors of inaction. What’s a deployed soldier to do when he’s not fighting? According to Swofford, they masturbate a lot, read magazines, and masturbate some more. Gone are the romanticized foxhole poker games of WWII or the Hendrix-infused drug dens of Vietnam . These men may be highly trained killing machines, but when it comes to war they just don’t get it.
It all comes crashing home when the soldiers finally go on patrol in Kuwait . Expecting to see combat, they instead come under friendly fire, trudge through a trail of napalm death, and take showers of burning oil. Worst of all, not a single one has fired a shot. And that is the main problem for these guys. They’ve been trained and indoctrinated with the idea that when they go to war, they’re going to kick ass and take names. But this is modern warfare, devoid of digging trenches and hiding in fox holes. In this war, you call in an air strike and smoke a cigarette. When Swofford and Troy are finally given clearance to take out an Iraqi commander, they are unceremoniously interrupted so a Major can call in an air strike. Troy goes berserk, incredulously imploring the Major to “Let him take the shot!”
Director Sam Mendes’ “Jarhead” is not a traditional war movie. There’s very little action, no heroics, and has more in common with the late Stanley Kubrick’s hallucinatory “Full Metal Jacket” and David O. Russell’s comically invective “Three Kings” than it does with Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Mendes’ war film instead revels in the small details of what is a confounding and uneventful time in the middle of a war. When things do happen, they seem so out of place that they take on a surreal, dream-like quality. While on patrol, Swofford and company come across what appears to be an armed convoy materializing out of the mirage. It turns out to be eight Kuwaitis with five camels. After a tense exchange with one of the Kuwaitis, it’s revealed that, “Someone shot three of their camels.”
“Jarhead’s” weirdness is supported by the fantastic photography of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Many scenes of the desert look like they were filmed on another planet, and things get even more spectacular when the oil derricks are set on fire. Time itself seems to leave the desert as black clouds of smoke blot out the sun during the day, and the thunderous flames from the oil fires light up the sky at night.
The cast is strong across the board. Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent as Swofford, effectively conveying the frustration that idle hands can bring. There’s one scene in particular, where Swofford nearly kills one of his platoon before realizing how badly he’s cracked. Gyllenhaal convincingly showcases an impressive range of emotions, showing significant growth since his drooling, somnambulant Donnie Darko. Nearly as good is Peter Sarsgaard as Swofford’s spotter and best friend Troy . Sarsgaard’s is a more measured performance, a man putting up a facade of level-headed cool to cover a mountain of hopelessness and self doubt. Strong supporting performances are also turned in by Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper as Swofford’s stern, but good natured superiors.
What’s most refreshing about “Jarhead” is that it doesn’t have an agenda or an ax to grind. The film is not about the Gulf War itself, nor is it a political statement for or against the current Administration, or even the current Gulf War. If anything, “Jarhead” is simply and only one man’s account of what happened to him, presenting events in undigested form for the audience to accept or reject. In the end, Swofford’s message is one of confusion — things happen to him, but he doesn’t know why, or what they mean, if there is indeed meaning. In the film’s final retrospective montage, we see that post-military life has been good for some and terrible for others. Predictably, Swofford is stuck somewhere in the middle.
Sam Mendes (director) / William Broyles Jr. (screenplay), Anthony Swofford (book)
CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal …. Swoff
Scott MacDonald …. D.I. Fitch
Lo Ming …. Bored Gunny
Peter Sarsgaard …. Troy
Damion Poitier …. Poitier
Brianne Davis …. Kristina
Jamie Foxx …. Staff Sgt. Sykes