Directed by Sam Mendes
Let’s start with what Jarhead is not: a war movie in the usual sense. There’s very little of the on-screen combat action that’s a staple of the genre. There isn’t a single crisis – some epic struggle -- that forms the dramatic center of the story. Instead, Jarhead is a memoir, a self-portrait of a U.S. Marine during Operation Desert Shield and, briefly, Desert Storm – the first gulf war following the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. The movie was adapted from a best-selling book by Anthony "Swoff" Swofford – who’s also the main character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. I found the story of Swoff’s time in the Marines both believable and moving. I could feel his frustrations along with him and see why and how he was changed by the experience.
By having the courage to avoid the clichés common to war movies, director Sam Mendes made a uncommon film. While I consider Mendes’s American Beauty (1999) a classic that will stand the test of time and Road to Perdition one of the best of 2002, I’m not sure if I should put Jarhead in that rarefied company. It may be the third-best of his three feature films so far, but it’s still a very interesting character study – and very topical these days.
The action in Jarhead consists of what Marines like Swoff do in their normal day-to-day routine – train, hydrate, train, de-hydrate, masturbate, torment their buddies, drink contraband booze, worry about their wives/girlfriends back home who may be cheating… etc. Swoff’s outfit – a sniper platoon led by Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) – is a rowdy bunch of high-adrenaline young men – played by a fine cast. Peter Sarsgaard is Troy, a quiet, intelligent, but troubled man with a past he hid from the Marines. He becomes Swoff’s best friend and “spotter” – Swoff is a “shooter” – shooters are teamed with spotters. Lucas Black seems to have fun playing Kruger, a swaggering good-old-boy from Texas who fits perfectly into the warrior culture. Fergus (Brian Geraghty) is a quieter, withdrawn young man from small-town Midwest – he has more trouble than most adapting to the Marine culture. Chris Cooper is perfect as Lt. Col. Kazinski, the only officer in the movie with more than a line or two – he gives a rousing, red-meat pep talk when the Marines first land in Saudi Arabia for Desert Shield.
When Swoff and Troy finally get a sniper mission, it’s as if all that training and waiting (about six months, in the desert) is going to pay off at last – they’re going to “get some”. But, true to life, if not usually the case in the movies, that moment of real combat turns out to be anti-climatic. I liked it – it felt real – but many war-movie fans will probably be disappointed. There isn’t a single climax when the good guys save the world. Jarhead is instead a story of a group of young men under the unusual combination of simultaneous stress and boredom.
I hope that audience for this type of film finds this one – rather than dismissing it as just another war movie. As is the case in all of Sam Mendes’s movies, the cinematography is beautiful and poetic but never splashy or overindulgent. If you’re ok with the idea of a film about a platoon of Marines containing very little action, give this one a chance.
Images are copyright Universal Pictures.
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