Jarhead (2005) / Drama-War

MPAA Rated: R for pervasive language, violent images, and strong sexual content
Running Time: 123 min.

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper, Dennis Haysbert, Lucas Black, Tyler Sedustine, Jacob Vargas, Laz Alonso, Jocko Sims, Brian Geraghty
Director: Sam Mendes

Screenplay: William Broyles Jr. (based on the book by Anthony Swofford)
Review published January 23, 2006

It may be nearly wholly anecdotal material, but Jarhead is a war film not quite like the others, as this one shows almost exclusively what it's like to be a soldier during those times when there isn't anything in particular going on.  Squabbles with superiors, with fellow soldiers, relentless training sessions, and constant fears of infidelity from the significant other left at home are all one has to keep the mind occupied, and with others around in the same boat, it's hard to keep one's sanity when boredom becomes all-encompassing. 

The events of the film are based on Anthony Swofford's autobiographical account of the days leading up to and during the short first Gulf war with Iraq known as Desert Storm, where Marine ground troops were deployed into Kuwait in order to drive back Saddam Hussein's invading forces.  Despite the US getting all of the troops to the area in a short amount of time, many of these troops could do little but sit in the desert heat and wait until orders were given to engage in battle.  Swofford was part of a crack team of snipers, trained from the beginning to take one particular type of shot under tremendous amounts of pressure to get the kill.  Every second of their focus goes into the specialized attack, but without an enemy to shoot at, the team of soldiers start to get "cabin fever" from the arid climate, and too much time together with nothing to do. 

The adaptation of Swofford's autobiography is provided by William Broyles Jr., who seems to excel at making just these kinds of films, where lots of waiting goes on without anything to do but more waiting.  In the past, he has received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Apollo 13, while also gaining acclaim a few years later with Cast Away.  Broyles has many more characters to work with here, but the themes are the same -- isolation, loneliness and an inability to get into a groove of normalcy can make one go completely stir crazy.

As solid as the adaptation is, what really holds all of this madness together is the directorial vision from one of the best directors of recent years, Sam Mendes.  Along with American Beauty and Road to Perdition, Mendes has shown an ability to excel at pushing forward a story in a compelling way without the need for dialogue, and in Jarhead, the most memorable moments come not in the words exchanged among the men, but in the imagery of the Iraqi sands, burning oil wells, and suffocating living conditions in the barracks.  Mendes is greatly assisted by his highly regarded crew, with gorgeous work by cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Village, The Ladykillers) and yet another rousing score by Mendes favorite, Thomas Newman (Cinderella Man, A Series of Unfortunate Events).

Also contributing to the solid story are memorable performances by a very fine cast.  Jake Gyllenhaal (Proof, The Day After Tomorrow) is terrific as Swofford, showing an amiable and intelligent persona that makes his character always appealing and interesting, while also looking like a man just on the verge of cracking from the constant pressures of uncertainty and lack of personal meaning in everything he does.  Jamie Foxx (Stealth, Ray) is also quite good as the Staff Sergeant trying to keep the men in a state of constant readiness, although his men frequently get out of line and into trouble with him, perhaps just to break up the monotony of the routine.

There are two qualities that, at first glance, seem polar opposites, but have gone hand-in-hand in making recent war films: reality and surreality.  Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter are probably the best examples of this, but even more recent films like Full Metal Jacket and Three Kings have managed to make what could have been very routine war films feel like there is much more psychological resonance at play.  Jarhead dips deep into the same bag for inspiration, and certainly contains quite a few moments of homage to please lovers of those films, but it's also unique enough in its setting to avoid being redundant.  Fittingly. at the end of the film, Swofford comments that, "Every war is different, every war is the same". That's certainly true of the events in Jarhead, both in its style as a movie and in the war elements themselves.

Yet, Jarhead isn't a typical war film meant for war film buffs only. It will probably be entertaining for people that normally eschew them, as there is a good amount of humor, interesting character issues, and an undercurrent of heady philosophical questions running throughout the film to keep one's mind engaged.  Who knew watching men bored out of their minds would be so fascinating? 

Marines are called "Jarheads" because their heads are like empty vessels that need filling. As an erudite endeavor with choice food for thought, Jarhead provides enough to ensure our own heads are filled with interesting ideas to think about long after the movie itself ends.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo