Some veterans have described their military service as long stretches of tedium broken by moments of sheer terror. Jarhead is a movie about the tedium. Based on the book of the same name by Anthony Swofford, Jarhead is a war movie about a war that ends before the characters ever fire a shot in anger.
The movie begins like Full Metal Jacket, with its main character, Swofford, (Jake Gyllenhaal),at boot camp. The boot camp scenes are fairly brief, and soon Swoff, as he is called by his fellow Marines, is posted to a rifle company and begins training as a scout sniper. His instructor, Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jaime Foxx, of last summer’s horrible Stealth), is a dedicated professional, and makes it clear to his Marines that they will operate as part of a team. It is Foxx, not Gyllenhaal, who is the real star of this movie. He is utterly convincing, and delivers a standout performance. When he is onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off him.
By the time Swofford completes sniper training, he has become one with his rifle, and is ready to kill the enemy. But when the call comes to deploy to Kuwait, Swofford and his fellow Marines find themselves sitting in the desert, waiting for months on end for the war to start. Their only enemy is boredom, heat, and for many, the nagging fear that their wives or girlfriends are cheating on them in their absence. When the war finally comes after months of staining at the leash, it is almost an anticlimax. Swoff’s unit rolls unopposed across Kuwait. The war has already been won from the air, and Swofford never once gets to use his sniping skills against an enemy.
Swofford ends up feeling cheated by the lack of combat, but should the audience? Jarhead has gorgeous cinematography by Roger Deakins, a standout performance by Jaime Foxx, and good special effects work that beautifully renders the Kuwaiti landscape, with it’s inferno of burning oil wells and the ghastly, miles long wreckage of the Iraqi retreat. Director Sam Mendes has the good sense to largely stay away from politics and simply tell the story of Swofford and his fellow Marines. (As one Marine, played by Peter Sarsgaard comments, “F**k politics. We’re here.”) In every way, Jarhead is a technically well executed movie. And yet...
Mendes tries to be sympathetic to Swoff and his fellow Marines. The problem is that Swofford himself isn’t a very likeable character. During the endless wait for the war to start, he complains that he is “losing his mind”. But no amount of boredom can justify some of his conduct, including pointing a rifle at a fellow Marine and threatening to kill him. A scene of a Vietnam vet enthusiastically greeting the returning Marines serves to remind the audience that whatever the hardships of Swofford’s war, other veterans have had it worse.
Jarhead’s depiction of the Marine Corps is at times questionable. It’s hard to believe that the death of a Marine in training would be brushed off as lightly in real life as it is in this movie. It is even harder to believe that Marines in a war zone would be dancing around bonfires, with no perimeter security, while a group of their fellow Marines were unaccounted for. A war movie that aspires to realism needs to avoid moments that remind the audience that this is, after all, only a movie.
Jarhead is full of telling and amusing moments, but perhaps the most telling occurs early in the film. Before leaving for Kuwait Swoff and his buddies are watching Apocalypse Now, hooting, hollering and cheering to the helicopter assault scene. The scene of young Marines roaring their approval of one of the great war films of all time rings true, but it may also make the viewer suddenly and acutely aware that he’d rather be watching something else.