Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the third generation in his family to enlist in the United States Marin Corps. After a tough stint in boot camp, Swoff” is assigned to a scout/sniper unit under the watchful eye of Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), a dedicated Marine lifer. The new recruit is paired with Corporal Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) and the unit is shipped to Saudi Arabia, poised to do battle with Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guard during the Operation Desert Storm in “Jarhead.”
Based on ex-Marine Anthony Swofford’s memoirs of his experiences prior to and during the first Gulf War, director Sam Mendes comes up with a good, but not great, war story where the main subject, trained to kill, never has the chance to go to war.
Things move briskly enough from Swofford’s signing up, surviving the rigors and abuse of boot camp, assignment to a stateside unit and recruitment, by Sgt. Sykes, into sniper school. It is a tough school, too, with over 50 entering but only eight, the best and the baddest, coming out the other end. Swofford and his spotter partner, Troy, (it’s a two-man team with one member spotting the target and the other pulling the trigger) are part of the first units deployed to Saudi Arabia after Saddam invaded Kuwait.
This makes up the bulk of “Jarhead” as time in field and number of troops deployed is flashed onto the bottom of the screen: 1 hour, 5000 men; day 62, 115000 troops; 122 days, 395000 soldiers and marines; and, finally, 175 days and 575000 troops poised like a finger on the trigger of a gun. Mendes and company examine the discipline (and, sometimes, lack of such), ingenuity and dark humor of these young men who are called on to fight for their country but simply wait, and wait, and wait. They don’t have a clue as to what’s going on but follow orders and do the job. Before they know it even started – 4 days, 4 hours and 1 minute later - the war is over.
Jake Gyllenhaal, as Swofford, is definitely the first among equals, rather than the star of this solid ensemble cast war film. To a lesser degree, I compare it to one of my favorite films about men at arms, Battleground” (1947), for the fleshing out many of the supporting characters, especially with his brothers in the field of battle. As seems the norm of late (not something I condone), Swoff narrates his feelings and opinions throughout the course of the film, a device I consider lazy filmmaking. Less of it and more storytelling via the visual media would have been better.
The ensemble cast does a fine job making the guys around Swoff realistic individuals; versus the caricature treatment Clint Eastwood gave his recon platoon in “Heartbreak Ridge” (a film I like as a guilty pleasure). In “Jarhead,” Jamie Foxx as Staff Sergeant Sykes ably leads the supporting characters. Sykes is a lifelong Marine who loves, with all his heart, the Corps and Foxx makes you believe it. Peter Sarsgaard, as Corporal Troy, is supposed to be Swoff’s friend and mentor, but I never got a sense of chemistry between the two actors, although I like his character, Troy. Others, like Lucas Black as sage cracker Kuhn and Evan Jones as none-too-bright Fowler, are tent mates, not stick figures. Chris Cooper as a hu-rah!!” field commander and Dennis Haysbert as an elitist major, in cameo performances, show the command side of Corps.
Jarhead” smacks of other war films, especially “Full Metal Jacket” (to which it blatantly “pays homage”) and, of course, “Three Kings,” matching that film’s highly saturated look. This is a bit of a distraction and should have been avoided or, at least, played down, to allow Anthony Swofford’s tale to stand on its own merit. Pop music is used to good effect, especially when a Vietnam-era tune is played and one of the men complains that their war should have its own damn music.
Techs are terrific with production designer Dennis Gassner capturing the look and feel of the Coalition military buildup, from the Marine viewpoint, and the boredom of waiting for the polits to pull the trigger. Roger Deakins capably lenses the proceeds and gives energy to the film’s look even as the story depicts the boredom of day-in, day-out life for these jarheads. Great attention is paid to the military details and equipment, with emphasis on the NBC suits (nuclear-biologic-chemical) that were the talk of the day.
A major part of the film takes place in the burning Kuwaiti oil fields that a sulking Saddam Hussein set on fire for no other reason but spite. Mendes and company did their homework in recreating the incredible look of a horizon dotted with burning wells like giant wild flowers spewing their pollen. Take a look at Werner Herzog’s fascinating docu, “Lessons of Darkness,” about the oil fire fighters in post-Gulf War Kuwait, and you’ll see what a good job “Jarhead” does in its depiction.
There is a decent melding of the geo-politics surrounding the Gulf War and the utter boredom of the average soldier as he waits for his leaders to make a decision. For these marines, it’s hydrate and train, with hydrate key for these desert warriors. Sgt. Sykes, as played by Foxx, instills the importance of this little survival note on his men repeatedly and forcefully.
Jarhead” isn’t the best war film I have ever seen. Lots of others take the fore in my mind. But, it is interesting, entertaining and sobering as it shows a war where the men fighting and dying didn’t have a clue as to why, except to follow orders. I give it a B.Laura:
Anthony 'Swoff' Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal, "Proof"), the son of a Vietnam vet, becomes a Marine envisioning the valor and glory of war. What he gets instead is Operation Desert Shield, a 175 day holding pattern of boredom and indignities far away from home. When the war finally comes, it's over almost before it begins, a deluge of air strikes that never allow the young man to use his extensive training. Swoff identifies with those who use the derogatory slang for his type, "Jarhead."
British director Sam Mendes ("Road to Perdition") brings Swofford's autobiography (adapted by William Broyles Jr., "Unfaithful," "The Polar Express") to the screen, hewing to Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" but leaving his point, if there is one, ambiguous. An opening narrative delivered by Gyllenhaal, repeated at film's end, ineffectively attempts to gain empathy for the Marine who never loses the feeling of the rifle in his hands. All we're really left with is some beautiful cinematography (Roger Deakins, "The Village'), some interesting secondary characters and what we ourselves can take away about the Bush Family's wars. The film isn't bad, just wispy. Better to revisit David O. Russell's "Three Kings."
As Swoff endures the familiar drill instruction and inductee hazing at Camp Pendleton, he gives us some personal background. Those things deemed too private - his conception in a Hawaii hotel room, visiting his sister in a mental ward, breakfast conversations with his taciturn dad - are viewed as doors close. Doors open to Swoff on the toilet, and 'studying' with his girlfriend Kristina (Brianne Davis), but no door opens to Swoff's motivation for enlisting with the Marines.
Sniper teams are assigned and Swoff's a shooter to Troy's (Peter Sarsgaard, "Flightplan") spotter, the only real basis Mendes provides for what is supposed to be a close friendship but never feels that way. The pair is a crack team, however, and as Swoff nails one target after another he tells us 'I was hooked. I wanted the pink mist.' Further Marine bloodlust is whipped up with a showing of "Apocalypse Now" (we get the 'Valkyrie' scene over the anti-war moments). Then the guys are dumped in the desert to hydrate, continue with physically demanding training in brutal heat and obsess over the faithfulness of wives and girlfriends. The latter threatens to overwhelm the film at one point.
'Swoff' and Troy are like lightweight versions of "Jacket's" Privates Pyle and Joker. 'Swoff' provides the humor, through cockiness (when asked WTF he's doing in Marine training, he replies 'Sir, I got lost on my way to college, Sir!') or naivete (when he reports for bugle tryouts to Sgt. Siek). There's outrage at the shoddy equipment they're provided and rebellion against brass instructions to spin the media. Troy provides the humanism, 'talking down' fellow soldiers from destructive acts (although ironically, it is Troy who melts down when he and Swofford are denied their act of war). There's respect (and lack of) for burned Iraqi bodies the men find, but their feelings towards these people are at a remove (there is one desert confrontation with nomads protecting the camels which have not yet been shot).
Gyllenhaal ("Proof") is competent in the central role. He's certainly playing something vastly different from what he's done before, but Mendes' failure to find a point of view strands the actor in a series of set pieces. Sarsgaard is a terrific actor, but his Troy may be his least indelible character to date. Making a stronger impression is Oscar winner Jamie Foxx who totally disappears into his role of the committed Sgt. Siek, eradicating "Stealth" from our memories in the process. Also good are Evan Jones ("8 Mile," "The Last Shot") as the offensive Fowler, Lucas Black ("Friday Night Lights") as charmer Kuhn and Brian Geraghty as the shy, inept Fergus. Chris Cooper ("Capote") appears briefly to shout some rah-rah rhetoric as Lieutenant Colonel Kazinski.
When a copter flies overhead blaring The Doors, Swofford wants to know why they can't have 'their own music.' The Middle Eastern circus pop score by Thomas Newman has a suitable sarcasm about it, but it's frequently too high in the mix. Soundtrack song selections are odd, from "Let's Get It On," an ironic but literal refrain to the Sargeant's commands to don gas masks and protective suits, to the finale's "Fight the Power."
"Jarhead" works on a pure entertainment level, but it is dealing with subject matter that demands more. It's about as thought provoking as an episode of "M.A.S.H."
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