November 4th, 2005
Based on the best-selling memoir by Anthony Swofford, “Jarhead” is a film of beautiful sights and sounds, but lousy characterization. Director Sam Mendes doesn’t have much trouble finding attention-grabbing locations for this Gulf War, yet as the film plays out, it comes increasingly clear that he’s unable to overcome the film’s complete lack of plot with lukewarm portraits of wartime losers trapped in situations beyond their understanding.
After running out of life options, Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhall) has just joined the Marines. Under the tutelage of his commanding officers (including a pronounced Jamie Foxx), hazing from his fellow enlistees, and the promise of eventual freedom from the armed forces, Swofford loses himself in the experience of being a soldier. As Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in 1990, Swofford and his squad are shipped over to the Middle East to await activation. Baffled by his new surroundings and unable to experience the violence of a soldier’s life like he was promised, Swofford wanders though the first Gulf War disillusioned, bored, and angry as he waits for the meaning behind the madness to sink in.
There’s a missing rhythm to Sam Mendes’s “Jarhead” that upsets the flow of the film in numerous ways. Bringing Anthony Swofford’s military memoir to the big screen, “Jarhead” was probably crafted with good intentions, but the final product feels like Mendes shot a script with every 5th page missing.
Mendes’s strength has never been in his screenplays, treading lightly over the words in his films “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition;” however, Mendes is a primo visual stylist, and “Jarhead” is an absolute buffet of eye candy. Collaborating with cinematographer Roger Deakins, “Jarhead” aspires to send the audience on the road to hell through the experiences of Swofford as he makes his way from boot camp to the thick of Iraq. Mendes alternates between lush, surreal vistas of the arid, forbidding desert to the tight, hot, claustrophobic realm of the Marines, keeping the audience as discombobulated with the landscapes as the characters are. Mendes doesn’t take any shot for granted, and his determination to shoot the hell out of this “Full Metal Jacket Jr.” is commendable. A standout sequence is found in the bleak, poisonous desert soon after Hussein ordered the oil wells set ablaze: as oil falls down on the squad like summer rain, Mendes visually summarizes that all-important moment of insanity that Swofford is trying to convey, where the situations found in the Gulf War were even more bizarre than anything the Marines were prepared for.
If Mendes paid as much attention to his characters as he did to his photography, “Jarhead” would’ve been easily as profound as it aspires to be. The isolation and deliberate distance paid to Swofford and his experience makes sense; here is a kid stuck is a situation he regrets, hoping that the longer he closes his eyes, the quicker he’ll be home again. Mendes grasps that critical maturation in the characters from dumb civilians to demoralized soldiers well, but the movie still plays very sneaky chess with the characters, missing important beats of development and relationships that confuse the story in the long run. With a film that essentially is about the journey of the soldiers, and no plot to speak of, the absent pieces add up quickly. Swofford’s behavior is a main point of contention, as he bounces between madness and complacency with mystifying ease. The fuzzy math also applies to his partnership with sniper colleague Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), with the two either tight friends or bitter enemies, depending on the scene. As “Jarhead” builds to a climax, Mendes’s job is to get the characters and the audience on the same level, so the payoff of Swofford’s life after the war feels real and cuts deep. The feelings never arrive; Mendes fumbles the script and creates even more distance between the soldiers and their mindset.
“Jarhead” is a competent war film, detailing the era when computers and precision wrestled away the fighting from the grunts. Mendes is after the impotency (often literally) of the modern soldier, not the bigger political parallel of war in Iraq (though he does slip into speechifying and underlining here and there). In book form, Swofford’s pathway was personal and focused. Regardless of how lush and fully realized the imagery is, “Jarhead” as a movie is stuck permanently in basic training.
My rating: C+