Imagine that you’ve been sent to war, but you never see any action. Would you be relieved to not face death, or would you feel a little bit cheated? Jarhead, based on Anthony Swofford’s book, asks that very question. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Swofford, a 20-year-old man who joins the Marines for reasons that are not clear even to him. He’s put in a unit full of misfits including Troy (Peter Sarsgarrd), who tries to be the moral center of the group.
Marine training is difficult at best, and the unit’s leader, Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), is particularly demanding. He knows that these men have to be whipped into shape, even if they don’t understand why. Despite getting off on the right foot, Sykes spots a talent in Swofford and fast-tracks him into sniper training. Being good at something is liberating to the troubled Marine, so he clings to new position. Eventually the unit is sent into Operation Desert Storm, where the boisterous Lt. Col. Kazinski (Chris Cooper) gives everyone a rousing pep talk about “kicking Iraqi ass.” Then it’s off to the oil fields. Swofford and his colleagues are stuck in the unbearable heat and humidity, hydrating themselves with bottled water on a regular schedule. Their job is to protect the oil fields, which initially seems like it might be an interesting detail yet quickly proves uneventful.
Jarhead is a war movie unlike any you’ve seen before. For starters, it is decidedly non-political. When one of the characters tries to discuss the political implications of Operation Desert Shield, Troy quickly dismisses the conversation. “We’re here now,” he says. “Everything else is bullshit.” The film takes a similar approach, focusing on the soldiers and not on the politics of the war.
It is also unusually combat-free. Most modern war movies – from Platoon to Born on the Fourth of July to Saving Private Ryan - have dealt with the mental and physical toll that war takes on soldiers. Jarhead, on the other hand, isn’t really about war at all; it’s about boredom and the toll it takes on soldiers. Swofford and his fellow Marines have been prepared to fight for their country. When they arrive, they’re assigned to protect the oil fields against an enemy that never comes. They have nothing to do but sit and wait. This forces them to do other things to occupy their minds: getting drunk, playing football in full combat gear, obsessing about whether their wives/girlfriends back home are being faithful, getting on each others’ nerves, and so on.
All the men react to the situation in different ways, but Swofford probably takes it the hardest. The longer things go on, the more disaffected he begins to feel. He doesn’t necessarily want to kill anybody; he just wants a chance to feel like he’s been dropped in the middle of the desert for a reason. After going through all the training and preparation, Swofford discovers that his skill set is antiquated. The Gulf War turns out to be a more technological war fought with SCUD missiles. One character comments that foot soldiers have no way of keeping up with the war because it’s constantly moving forward so fast. This leaves people like Swofford feeling frustrated and unfulfilled. He’s gone through all the build-up but has no chance of a payoff or catharsis. It’s like sex without orgasm, work without a paycheck, chewing your food without swallowing.
Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) has assembled a movie whose visual elegance stands in contrast to the monotonous assignment given to these Marines. He creates a place that looks like it should be brimming with excitement, yet isn’t. The desert is, in many ways, another character in the story. The most impressive sequence in Jarhead takes place when Saddam Hussein (or “Saddam Insane” as Sykes calls him) has the oil fields set on fire. Swofford and the others trudge through the desert as oil falls like rain from a blackened sky. Before long, everyone is covered with it, but to what end?
Jake Gyllenhaal has been doing strong work in a wide range of movies, from Donnie Darko to The Day After Tomorrow. This may be his signature role so far. Anthony Swofford feels like his sanity might be slipping away a piece at a time. He’s disconnected not only from home, but from himself as well. He’s fighting a war without doing any fighting. Gyllenhaal conveys all this effectively, making us care about the character even when he’s not at his nicest. The actor’s intense work is matched by that of Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx, who deliver strong supporting turns.
Jarhead does something that not many films can: it effectively portrays a mental state. Modern warfare is confusing to everyone. The old days of flag-waving, go-get-‘em combat are slowly slipping away. The modern solider is having his job redefined right in front of him. Whether that’s good or bad is open to debate; however, when you’ve been trained extensively to do one very specific thing, it can be frustrating when you never get the chance to do it. Jarhead is a powerful, darkly funny look at the toll that comes when preparedness collides head-on with boredom.
( 1/2 out of four)
Jarhead is rated R for pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.
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