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Nov. 8, 2005

"Jarhead" is thrilling boredom

by Ethan Kuhnhenn, Online Managing Editor
"Jarhead" is based on a strange concept for a self-proclaimed action-drama: boredom. Sam Mendes' vivid and riveting film based on author Anthony Swofford's personal account of fighting in the Persian Gulf War sheds light on the not-so-romantic and not-so-provocative aspects of modern-day warfare.

Mendes' insightful portrait of life as a Marine may not evoke the political or moral emotions that other wartime movies — see "Platoon" or "Full Metal Jacket" — have focused on, but then again, "Jarhead" is not a typical wartime movie. There are no battles, no heroic acts of bravery, no brazen political messages—just a division of restless Marines and hundreds of thousands of miles of heat-baked sand engulfing them.
Jamie Foxx and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Jarhead."
Jamie Foxx and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Jarhead."

In "Jarhead," Mendes addresses the misperceptions that many of the military's young recruits have about the army. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Swofford, a young kid who has joined the military not because of some innate sense of patriotism, but because "something went wrong in the college plan." That's not to say that many of the Marines didn't enlist because of political reasons. The point Mendes makes is that these kids came from diverse backgrounds, had different reasons for enlisting but were alike in being both excited and afraid at the prospect of war while at the same time being completely unaware of what life as a soldier was really about.

The audience quickly begins to get a picture of what this life is about: waiting around. While the army's mobile units chase Iraqi forces around Kuwait, Swofford and the rest of the Marines in his platoon rot away in the scorching temperatures of the Saudi Arabian desert. As Swofford and his fellow Jarheads (slang for Marine) spend day after monotonous day in the "suck" they become less and less convinced that they will eventually see action.

Resigned to rigorous training exercises under their sardonic Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), the soldiers make up the rest of their days reminiscing about life back home and making up for a lack of females in the lonely desert outpost by adopting some bad habits. Foxx returns to his comic roots as the amusing yet profound Sykes. Foxx also masters Syke's dual personalities and brings depth and originality to the stereotypical sergeant character of classic war movies.

As in the Gulf War of 1991, the action in the movie is almost nonexistent, so Mendes fills time by exploring the psychological effects of waiting for a war that has not yet materialized. In the suck, Swofford is tortured by the thought of his girlfriend back home leaving him for another man. When his unit finally gets the chance see battle, Swofford is tormented by the realization that he may never get the elusive kill that he and his fellow Marines have trained so hard for. Gyllenhaal, as Swofford, also shows depth and a subtlety that many lead roles lack in war movies. His commanding on-screen presence doesn't detract from the performance of his supporting cast and his mocking, monotone voice-overs convey the irony of his misperceptions about what war is.

Again, Mendes keeps the message apolitical and at times lets the camera do the talking: sweeping vistas of shimmering sand flats, lunar landscapes and wide-lens shots of burning oil wells all conjure apocalyptic images. In a war-torn and very raw setting, Mendes conveys the desolation that contributes to the running theme of the soldiers' ambivalence about the war, about their role as soldiers and about their futures.

Overall, Mendes has created a unique take on the genre; this movie could have easily fallen under the "just another war movie" category. In "Jarhead," the audience gets insight into the other, less-glamorous but still captivating side of war.

"Jarhead" (123 minutes, area theatres) is rated R for pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content.



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  • ? on November 9, 2005 at 6:57 PM
    Deceptive title
  • 12 35 on November 10, 2005 at 5:50 PM
    the commercials look boring
  • gabe on November 11, 2005 at 4:19 PM
    great review, i really enjoyed gylnhals performance as well. keep up the good work
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