Compelling but Crude Portrayal of One Soldier’s Desert Storm

“Am I ever going to get to kill anyone?”

Sometimes in war, so much happens that it overloads the senses to the point of scarring. Other times nothing happens, and the strain of being far from home in a foreign land with nothing to do, can cause its own kind of damage. Such is the case in Jarhead, the latest drama from director Sam Mendes, who has led us down a dark path before in both American Beauty (1999) and Road to Perdition (2002).

Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a brand new marine, circa 1990. Trained by his gruff drill sergeant (Jamie Foxx), he is ready for combat (also known as “The Suck”), when Iraq invades Kuwait. As part of Operation Desert Shield, ‘Swoff’ and his fellow troops are given little to do in the way of fighting. When Operation Desert Storm finally does commence, it’s over so fast that the marines feel cheated. What’s the point of learning to kill then not being allowed to do it?

Jarhead (the self-imposed nickname of a marine) is less of a war film and more of a character study. In fact, little combat actually takes place. The screenplay is based on the best-selling book by the real Swofford, a memoir of his actual experiences in Kuwait, and it feels authentic. The details are all there: the lingo, the training, “friendly fire”, etc. Gyllenhaal is often heard in voice over, and his thoughts are believable.

Mendes has assembled a good cast of familiar faces. After Gyllenhall, there is Foxx (Ray), doing an understated take on a standard drill sergeant which I liked. The other familiar face is Peter Sarsgaard (Flightplan) who becomes Swoff’s spotter on their scout sniper team. All the performances are fine, but no one really stands out. This helps the movie feel more like an ensemble piece than a star vehicle, so the platoon becomes more of a character than any character does.

Some of the content in this movie is not for the easily offended. Since we’re dealing with marines, the profanity begins in the first scene and continues throughout the entire film. There are a couple brief but graphic sex scenes. There’s nudity. Masturbation is mentioned several times and depicted once. I realize Mendes is going for edgy, but this stuff can be off-putting, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

One thing I really liked about Jarhead was the soundtrack. Mendes juxtaposes music with the images we’re seeing (an old Kubrick trick), so we get Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” played over marines training in boot camp. The score by Thomas Newman is also very effective (kind of a rock/electronica mix), and I wouldn’t mind hearing it again by itself.

I also liked the nods to other war films. The drill sergeant abuse at the beginning bears more than a passing resemblance to the opening of Full Metal Jacket (and we also get the ‘this is my rifle..’ speech). While in training, the troops watch and cheer the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now (also edited by this film’s editor, Walter Murch). One soldier gets a VHS copy of The Deer Hunter sent from home, only to find the film has been replaced by a nasty surprise. Jarhead operates in a much different way from those films, but it’s obvious that these are what create the marine culture in the first place.

My main issue with this movie is that I found the characters hard to relate to, or like. Almost everyone lacks a moral center, with the possible exception of Fergus (Brian Geraghty), who is portrayed as weakling and a moron. These guys are all borderline nuts, which made it hard for me to empathize (I’d probably make a lousy marine). I found myself merely observing, instead of becoming a part of, their experience.

For me, Jarhead was a mixed bag. While the raunchy tone and distant characters were the film’s undoing, it was still an interesting undoing to witness.