Private Tony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) is not exactly what you could call a model US Marine. He's something of a goofball and he admits he joined up for want of anything better to do with his life. Basic training is hard on him. Although he scrapes through, it leaves him regretting his decision to enlist. To make matters worse, he's assigned to a unit commanded by Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), an acid-tongued career soldier who introduces him to his comrades by making him imitate a bugle with his mouth and play reveille. It's an awkward beginning but Swofford is soon accepted by his comrades and he even finds a friend in the jaded Troy (Peter Sarsgaard).
In August 1990, Saddam Hussein's army invades Kuwait. President George Bush Sr responds by setting into motion Operation Desert Shield and shipping thousands of US soldiers to Saudi Arabia. Private Swofford's unit is one of the first to fly over, their initial assignment to protect the Saudis' oilfields. The marines are elated - this is a real, live war! They can't wait for their chance to go into combat and kick some Iraqi ass. But while Bush and Saddam trade soundbites, the troops sit and wait. And wait. Days stretch into weeks and weeks stretch into five and a half agonising months of living on constant standby in the middle of the baking hot desert.
Jarhead, which is based on a non-fiction book by the real Anthony Swofford, is a gruelling film. There's humour here but it's of a very black, deadpan variety. Despite the star cast and a well-publicised general release, Jarhead is unlikely to endear itself to multiplex audiences. Indeed, both here and in the US, the film has had strong opening weekends followed by rapid tail-offs.
That may be partly because it's being promoted as a war movie, with posters depicting a soldier standing in front of burning oil wells. This is not a war movie, at least not in the traditional sense. There's almost no combat onscreen. In tone and content, Jarhead has more in common with a prison film. It's about men coping with an unpleasant, claustrophobic, all-male environment.
Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road To Perdition) does a very effective job of conveying the frustration and misery these men endure. Working from a script by William Broyles Jr (Cast Away) and aided by Roger Deakins' grainy, bleached-out cinematography, Mendes shows us first hand what it must be like to be a working soldier. Waiting, training, drilling, fraternising with your unit, writing letters home to your sweetheart and dreading a Dear John letter back, fantasising about your the other guys' girlfriends and, most of all, sitting around, bored out of your skull.
Most movies about the military have the subtext that war is hell. However, most of them fail to communicate that message because action that would be terrifying to experience first hand is exhilarating to watch onscreen. Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down are fine films but whatever their directors' intentions, they probably inspired more young men to enlist than they scared out of it. Jarhead is not going to win the Marines any new recruits.
Not that this is an anti-military or anti-war film. There is a character who voices Bill Hicks-style comments on American foreign policy (which I'm not sure is credible coming from a US Marine) but for the most part Mendes stays neutral on the rights and wrongs of the Gulf War. The movie will probably be appreciated best by people who have served in the armed forces. I think many will be grateful to see a film that tries to tell their story rather than find new ways to portray battle.
Jake Gyllenhaal is ideally cast as Private Swofford. After spending the last few years more or less rehashing his disaffected teenager from Donnie Darko in a number of mediocre films, Gyllenhaal has broken free of his typecasting and shown impressive range with his work in Brokeback Mountain and this film. His Oscar nomination was well deserved.
No less outstanding is Jamie Foxx, who pulls off the near-impossible task of finding a new way to play a sergeant. Not only that, he illustrates through his performance how most sergeants in the movies are little more than plot devices. Whether they're hard-asses, tough love providers or the angel / devil figures of Platoon, Hollywood sergeants are always there to be part of the hero's rites of passage. Not this time. Staff Sergeant Sykes could give a damn about Swofford's personal development. He drills his marines and gets on their cases when they screw up because that's his job but he has his own life and his own goals. Foxx plays the character like he's the star of his own movie and Swofford is a supporting character way down the cast list.