By Joe Lozito
At one point in "Jarhead", director Sam Mendes' clinical adaptation of Anthony Swofford's Gulf War memoir, a helicopter flies by blasting The Doors' "Break on Through". One of the soldiers on the ground looks up and comments: "That's Vietnam! Can't we even get our own music." It's a sure bet that solider would feel the same way about this film. That's not to say that "Jarhead" is derivative. It has a welcome vérité quality which gives it a true sense of place, if not urgency. But even that feeling is similar to "Black Hawk Down". However, where that 2001 Ridley Scott film was one non-stop action sequence, "Jarhead" is the polar opposite. It is a build up to a scene that never occurs.
"Jarhead" follows such well-trodden territory, that Mr. Mendes needs to spend no time creating his environment. In an opening homage to "Full Metal Jacket", a typically gruff drill instructor (Scott MacDonald) berates new recruit Anthony Swofford, finally slamming his head into a chalkboard. From there we see Anthony (or "Swoff" as he's called) and his group of Marines put through their paces. One fortuitous trip to the latrine and he meets Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx, channeling his inner Denzel) who thinks Swoff may have what is takes to be a spot sniper.
The film is really a series of vignettes about the group of soldiers in Swoff's company. Since the script by William Broyles Jr. has no real through-story, it's hard to get invested in any of the characters. Very few, in fact, are memorable enough to standout from the crowd. That Swoff is relatable at all is a tribute to Jake Gyllenhaal, who turns in another in a series of fine performances. Mr. Gyllenhaal brings the inherent stir crazy feeling of the film to life with surprising effectiveness.
There are some beautiful scenes in "Jarhead", particularly late in the film when the soldiers are stuck within endlessly burning oil fields. Mr. Mendes directs with a sure hand and never feels the need to call attention to sprawling scenes of camouflaged extras. He matter-of-factly shows platoons of men traipsing around the dessert with helicopters buzzing overhead without saying, "look at this budget" or, worse yet, "look at this CGI". But like his 2002 "Road to Perdition"
, Mr. Mendes has crafted another beautiful film devoid of emotion.
What little statement the film makes revolves around the absurdity of these men, trained to shoot with ultimate precision, and never given the chance to fire off a round. The Marines are honed to a fine point, sent to battle and then forced to wait for almost two hundred days before seeing any action (there's a particularly memorable viewing of "Apocalypse Now" which builds to an orgiastic fervor). Though I think a stronger statement is made by the enigmatic Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) when he says, "Fuck politics. We're here. All that's bullshit."
Of course, you can't make a war movie these days without being compared to some of the greats ("Platoon", "Full Metal Jacket", "Saving Private Ryan", "MASH", "Apocalyse Now" to name a few). While Mr. Mendes has created some fine moments, like "Three Kings"
, the Gulf War is still waiting for its definitive movie.