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Based on a best-selling memoir by a Marine who fought in the 1991 Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), Jarhead is told chronologically, from enlistment and training, to shipping out to Kuwait, to the endless waiting for the fighting to begin, to the surreal experiences of the war in the desert, complete with the well-remembered burning oil wells.
Only 18 when he enlisted, Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), a third-generation enlistee whose father served in Viet Nam, is mocked for reading Camus and experiences the hazing to which Marine recruits subject one another. The training is dead serious, with a "kill or get killed" mantra drummed into the trainees and the real danger of live fire over their heads as they crawl under barbed wire, rifles cradled in their arms.
Swofford, a good shot, attains the elite role of a sniper, with Troy (Peter Saarsgaard), fulfilling the role of a more mature, if seriously alienated, mentor and friend. In smaller roles, Jamie Foxx is Sergeant Sykes, a career Marine, who commands Swofford’s platoon and Chris Cooper has a cameo role as the gung-ho commanding officer.
There are many riveting images in Jarhead: a convoy of Humvees moving through the shimmering heat of the desert; the platoon playing football in the desert wearing their Nuclear/Bio/Chemical protective masks; a horse covered in oil emerging out of the burning oil fields. There’s also a good deal of raunchy, prankish behavior by Marines who are bored to distraction waiting some six months for their war to begin. Their lives are pictured as centered on near-hysterical partying, cleaning their rifles, masturbation, mail from home, worries about the girl left behind, and more masturbation.
Director Sam Mendes creates an appropriate and arresting look for the film, using a washed-out desert palette, and the editing is fast and furious. The latter is perhaps an attempt to overcome the highly episodic structure of the film; there is no overarching plotline to provide needed narrative momentum.
Mendes includes an extended scene in which the Marines are watching Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, perhaps the definitive cinematic statement of the Viet Nam war. It’s a dangerous ploy to invite comparison in that way; Jarhead suffers in comparison to Apocalypse Now which had a driving storyline and provoked a powerful emotional connection for the viewer. Jarhead is as cynical about the war experience as its predecessor, creating, in terms very much drawn from the experience of the later war, a strong sense of the irrational futility of it all–it’s a dark film, full of mean pranksterism and and bitter humor. But Mendes doesn’t succeed in creating meaningful identifcation with the characters. Stylistically stunning and performed with conviction, Jarhead, nonetheless, leaves the viewer emotionally unconnected.