Based on Anthony Swoffords excellent memoir about his experiences as a Marine Sniper in Gulf War I, Jarhead
is a war movie in which the waiting is a far greater factor upon the characters than the war itself, and the build up to combat is more drama than what combat is depicted. To some viewers hoping for typical movie action, this will seem like a cruel joke. But its not. Its just the story as it was written, and if you liked the book, you will probably like the movie. If you didnt, then the movie wont change your mind.
The movie follows the trajectory of Swofford (played with thoughtful intensity by Jake Gyllenhaal) from wayward Marine recruit (he joined because he "got lost on the way to college") to skilled Marine sniper, and on into the desert in preparation for the attack on Iraq. No-nonsense, Marine-for-life Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), the man who recruited Swofford and his spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) into the sniper team, leads them in training, and in waiting where their lives are dominated by endless tension, pointless exercises in absurdity (like playing football in the scorching heat of the desert in their gas masks so it will look better for the medias TV cameras), more training, and constant anticipation of the moment to come when theyll finally get to kill. When the war does come, it moves too fast for Swoffords sniper team, and the one chance they get at a kill--to do the one thing theyve trained so hard and waited so long for--eludes them, leaving them to wonder what was the point of all they had endured.
As directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), the movie remains very loyal to the language and vision of the book, but it doesnt entirely work as the film needs something more than a literal translation to bring out its full potential. Mendes stark and, at times, apocalyptic visuals add a lot and strike the right tone: wide shots of inky-black oil raining down on the vast, empty desert from flaming oil wells contrasted with close-ups of crude-soaked faces struggling through the mire vividly bring to life the meaning of the tagline "welcome to the suck." But much of the second half of the movie will probably leave some viewers feeling disappointed in the cinematic experience, while others might appreciate its microcosmic depiction of modern chaos and aimlessness. Jarhead is one of those examples where the book is better than the movie, but not for lack of trying. --Dan Vancini
Swoffords 2003 book on his experiences in the first Gulf War, and enlists William Broyles Jr a former Lieutenant who fought in Vietnam to convert it into a screenplay. Mendess film strays into Full Metal Jacket territory as it opens, with young recruit Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) undertaking some rigorous basic training under the steely, watchful eye of Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx). Impressed, Sykes invites Swofford to join his team, and partners him with Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), ultimately taking them to Saudi Arabia to fight in the first Gulf War. But once they arrive in the punishing heat of the desert, the long wait for battle sends many of the Marines dangerously close to the brink of insanity. Drawing on the experience of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption) to help viewers get a close-up taste of the Marines punishing life in the desert, Mendess film enters into deeply unsettling territory, the likes of which many cinemagoers wont have experienced since Martin Sheen lost his tenuous grip on reality in Apocalypse Now. Indeed, Mendes deploys a few similar tactics to those that made Francis Ford Coppolas 1979 film so effective: a hip soundtrack that uses songs from artists as varied as Public Enemy and the Rolling Stones, and a feeling of disillusionment and futility among the troops that really digs in when the battle finally blackens the desert skies. Avoiding any overt antiwar sentiments, Mendes instead provides a thoughtful account of life as a modern day soldier, demonstrating how technology has made the average Marines job all but redundant, and created disaffected troops who are as much a threat to each other as the enemies they wait to face in the trenches.