“Forget politics – we’re here,” a young marine played by Peter Sarsgaard offers up midway through Jarhead. A curious statement for a film with political pretensions, or at least one which would seem so, what with its played-to-death trailer’s sardonic voice-overs and politically charged soundtrack. It’s also an ostensible statement of intent, absolving director Sam Mendes and his screenwriter (William Broyles Jr.) of contributing to the current war dialogue in any meaningful way. Instead, Sam Mendes’s Jarhead is a thread-bare narrative hodgepodge of soldier’s-perspective verite and stock-ritualistic military rites of passage. It’s the kind of film that purports itself as a soldier’s story – a story less about war than it is about the individual – but fails to push the envelope in any way. A static vacuum of a movie, Jarhead tries mightily to show the first gulf war through the eyes of a soldier, but as it gets bogged down in the all-too-familiar character types of its genre, the film doesn’t even scratch the surface.
Adapted from Anthony Swofford’s 2004 memoir, Jarhead picks up in 1989, where baby-blue-eyed Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) endures the vitriol of a pathologically sadistic drill sergeant. The scene plays as an over-the-top, even farcical, lifting from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Gyllenhaal’s mordant voice-overs during this opening sequence suggest some kind of critical, first-hand account of the soldier’s world to come, but the film soon devolves into the sophomoric frat-boy humor common to the genre’s brethren.
We soon find Swoff at base camp, where he’s introduced by Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx in a throwaway of a role) to an elite sniper division. A few scenes later, it should come as no surprise, Foxx is already emasculating Swoff in front of his platoon, prodding him to perform an oral rendition of reveille and a Stevie Wonder song to boot. Here we’re introduced to all of Swoff’s division, and everybody fits the type. There’s the idiot (Evan Jones), the nerd (Brian Geraghty), the malcontent (Lucas Black), and the subdued, standoffish Troy played by Peter Sarsgaard. After a myriad of overlong training sequences, Mendes throws these character types into the desert and waits for something to happen.
And nothing ever does. The conceit of Jarhead is that the first gulf war was an anticlimactic romp, a war billed as the “Mother of All Wars” that, for these soldiers, lasted no more than four days. A war won by the air force, the first gulf war rendered ground troops useless, leaving soldiers to jittery moments of anxiety, boredom, and despair. Swoff’s platoon members want so badly to consummate their war experience with a kill, to put the icing on a cake fraught with hours of grueling combat training and preparation for war.
Conveying this tedium and angst on film is something of a precarious task and, to Mendes’s credit, Jarhead stays true to its purpose, foregoing the big explosions and battle scenes in the interest of its characters. But ultimately, there’s nothing new or original about these characters and each stays true to form. With the exception of Gyllenhaal’s Swoff, every character in the ensemble is a cipher. In its closing moments, the film makes a gesture at characterization with an endearing soliloquy delivered by Foxx, but it’s a case of too little too late. MIA for the better part of the second act, Foxx’s sudden prominence comes as a last-ditch effort to get the film back on its feet. The entire performance is a moot point.
Roger Deakins’s cinematography may be this film’s one salvation. If nothing else, Jarhead captures the landscape of war with startling bare shots of the open desert horizon. A virtuoso sequence late in the film imaging an argosy of fiery oil wells resembling the ash-drawn plumes of a phoenix resonates long after the film is over. But an oblique political statement at film’s end only muddles a premise that is tepid at best.
Archived article by Jason Remsen