Published Nov 01, 2005In director Sam Mendes's stunning new film, Jarhead, which chronicles a group of Marines sent to fight in the first Gulf War, he not only makes one of the great war movies in film history, but also makes you question the very nature of a war film and the expectations and baggage that an audience brings to the subject.
Jarhead opens in familiar fashion, with Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) going through a Marine boot camp that looks familiar to anyone whose knowledge of the military stems from films like Full Metal Jacket; the film-literate references continue when the recruits pump themselves up at a screening of Apocalypse Now (famed editor Walter Murch, who cut Jarhead, also spliced and diced that Coppola epic). The Apocalypse scene in particular is energetic and revealing - like the audience, these soldiers have been fed Hollywood's idea of life during wartime and expect their time in fatigues to be a combination of sweeping Wagnerian scores and beautifully lit moments of heroism.
That's certainly not what they find upon arriving as part of the first wave of Operation Desert Shield; it is instead dominated by heat, exhaustion and extremes of boredom - experiences that Mendes takes to their limits in chronicling the mental collapse of the troops, particularly that of Swofford (whose real-life experiences, chronicled in the book of the same name, are the basis of Jarhead). Mendes portrays the Marines as machines designed and built for killing, who are then denied any opportunity, and an intense feeling of personal impotence grows throughout the film - that's highlighted by the fact that Swofford has been trained as a sniper, a job increasingly out-of-touch with the technologically advanced war games that surround them.
In supporting roles, Peter Sarsgaard (Kinsey, Shattered Glass) and Jamie Foxx (Ray) bring both intensity and a lovely simplicity to their roles as an enthusiastic Marine and career soldier, respectively. Mendes takes full advantage of having cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Man Who Wasn't There, A Beautiful Mind) at his side, making a sequence in which Iraqi troops set fire to the oil fields of Kuwait beautifully haunting.
With almost no combat in the entire film, Jarhead is a very different kind of war movie, one that comments on and explores both the nature of war and how it gets presented in the pop culture milieu; it's a mighty accomplishment of filmmaking and storytelling both. (Universal)