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Jarhead (2005)
1 Stars

Directed by Sam Mendes
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, Lucas Black, Chris Cooper, Skyler Stone, Wade Williams, Brian Geraghty, Evan Jones, Laz Alonso, Tyler Sedustine, Jocko Sims, Dennis Haysbert, Katherine Randolph
2005 – 115 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 27, 2005.

Coming off of two consecutively great motion pictures—1999's "American Beauty" and 2002's "Road to Perdition"—director Sam Mendes misses the mark by a long shot with "Jarhead." Based on the 2003 memoir by Anthony Swofford, the film is an unmoving and event-deprived experience that starts off promisingly before becoming repetitive as it heads nowhere. The listless nature of the narrative, from a screenplay by William Broyles Jr. (2004's "The Polar Express") that plays like a lesser version of "Full Metal Jacket," may be part of the point, but it does not make for a dynamic or particularly interesting movie. This is one case where the material involved did not demand a cinematic treatment, and probably should have stuck to the written page.

Set in 1989, Anthony 'Swoff' Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a 20-year-old with college opportunities and a serious girlfriend who, in the opening narration, says that he made the mistake of joining the Marines instead. First sent to boot camp as a still-wet-behind-the-ears amateur soldier before being shipped out to the deserts of Saudi Arabi to await the impending start of Desert Storm, Swoff and his new buddies of the elite STA Marine unit—mentor Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) and happy-go-lucky Kuhn (Lucas Black) among them—wait and wait and wait for something to happen. As their days in the dry open heat turn to months, Swoff sees himself begin to turn into someone he doesn't like, haunted by the dangerous possibilities that await him while becoming frustrated at the seeming inertia of what he originally signed up to do for his country.

"Jarhead," a slang term for U.S. Marines, has been billed as a war picture, but it turns out to be one where no actual war is ever seen being fought. As Desert Storm heats up in the unseen distance, the STA unit that Swoff has been assigned meanders their days and nights alone in the desert, headed by diehard military Staff Sgt. Siek (Jamie Foxx). In between scenes of jokey banter, heavy drinking and partying, and war training are intermittent pit-stops into hokey melodramatic territory, with most of the central characters getting their own turn to emotionally snap and/or break down and cry. These scenes, none of them believably written and all about as touching as a wet dishrag, can be seen coming a mile away, and don't feel organic to the truths of the characters. Instead, they seem to have been put there as moments of showoff acting. It doesn't help that there isn't a single likable person on view, and thus, no one to latch onto and care about.

When the grim realities of war and destruction finally set in for Swoff and company when they come upon a charred-up Iraqi squad that has been bombed, it comes too late and switches in an instant from being ruminative to drug out. On second thought, director Sam Mendes attempts to bring a thoughtful quality to this section, but fails. When the dire effects of war are portrayed onscreen, one thing they should never inspire in the viewer is utter indifference, and yet somehow Mendes manages it. In fact, "Jarhead" as a whole is much like that—feeling always like a movie rather than real-life, watched through the foggy glass of a jar. Whatever emotions the film is supposed to inspire, the only one achieved is the strong sense that the military is as hellish as the wars they often must fight.

The people inhabiting the frames of "Jarhead" may be the most tragic misstep of William Broyles Jr.'s script. In simplest terms, they are more akin to dickheads than jarheads—smarmy, filled to the brim with BS, male chauvinism and homophobia, and not formed enough to be at all sympathetic. Certain aspects of their handling may be authentic to how men in the military act around each other, but it is deadly for the film to have even the narrating protagonist carry much of the same personality debits.

Jake Gyllenhaal (2005's "Proof") is a commanding force who sells his portrayal of Anthony 'Swoff' Swofford, but he doesn't warm up to the viewer or find a way to make him someone worth giving a care in the world about. Without a lead character deserving of being followed, or hardly any story threads more than cursorily touched upon, the film crumbles. Jamie Foxx (2004's "Ray") and Lucas Black (2004's "Friday Night Lights") show promise in their respective roles, but aren't given enough to do. Faring less well is Peter Sarsgaard (2005's "Flightplan"), untypically strained as Swoff's best friend, Toby, particularly during a scene where he is asked to break down and cry.

The politics within "Jarhead" are unbiased, a positive because no audience member will feel alienated from the opinions of the characters, but a negative because it stops said characters from becoming fully developed. A little more concentration on what these men think about the war and their place within it might have helped to humanize them. As is, they are little more than slimy, immature frat guys, stuck in an arid desert for 175+ days before finally going home. The intentions of the anticlimactic afterthought of an ending is to show us that, even without actually fighting in the war, just being there was enough to put an everlasting stamp on these men's future lives and memories. That is all well and fine, but the same ideas have been played out many times before, and to a more incisive and powerful degree. The tagline for "Jarhead" is "Welcome to the Suck." Truth in advertising must be making a comeback.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman