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With: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper, Scott MacDonald, Lucas Black, Brian Geraghty
Written by: William Broyles Jr., based on the book by Anthony Swofford
Directed by: Sam Mendes
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content
Running Time: 115
Date: 04/11/2005

Jarhead (2005)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Head' Games

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The trickiest of genres, the war film does not have the advantages of Westerns or comedies or horror films. Those genres never generate any kind of respect or serious attention, so they can usually get away with all kinds of twisted ideas. The war film, especially those from the past three decades, very often comes with its own preachy sobriety. It's almost obligatory to walk the line with these films, afraid of dishonoring any real-life heroes. This year's disappointing The Great Raid provides a perfect example.

Still, some filmmakers have discovered certain methods around this stick-in-the-mud treatment. One uses the war backdrop to tell a different kind of story, such as Apocalypse Now (1979) or Three Kings (1999). Another comes from the point of view of people who were actually there. John Ford, John Huston and Samuel Fuller actually served during World War II, and their war films tend to ring with a certain kind of inner understanding, most notably seen in Fuller's masterful memoir The Big Red One (1980).

Based on Anthony Swofford's book of the same name, the new film Jarhead makes a perfect follow-up to The Big Red One. Rather than a story, a climactic battle and an ultimate victory, Jarhead unfolds in episodes. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. (The Polar Express) and director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition), focus on boredom, pent-up anxiety and the definitive, bizarre act of going to war.

Jarhead leaves out many of the details of Swofford's childhood; we learn that he had a military father and a less-than-ideal childhood. His joining the Marines is matter-of-fact. His drill instructor asks him why he signed up, and "Swoff" (Jake Gyllenhaal) replies, "I got lost on the way to college, sir!" Swoff's military career happens to coincide with the first Bush presidency and the first Gulf War, and he finds himself among the first American troops sent to the desert to sit and wait for an Iraqi attack. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins use their widescreen frame to emphasize the flat, bright, empty quality of the desert. They punctuate it with bright or dark spots: a football, a bottle of spring water or a Santa Claus hat.

Trained as a scout sniper, Swoff and his colleagues quickly grow bored while waiting for governments to make a decision. Sergeant Siek (Jamie Foxx) runs them through several pointless exercises and they masturbate a lot. The media turns up and they attempt to toe the company line. The constant threat of an attack looms, but, as Swoff's sniper partner Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) warns, if something does come it'll be over before anyone can even grab a rifle. "Welcome to the suck."

The Marines in Jarhead may well be the first post-modern movie soldiers. They've grown up with VCRs and have watched Full Metal Jacket and The Deer Hunter to prepare for war. When Swoff's platoon overhears someone playing The Doors, he groans, "That's Vietnam music!" So Mendes fills the soundtrack with new music (Nirvana turns up, but about a year too early), lots of hip-hop, most notably Public Enemy, the perfect soundtrack for an angry, fruitless time. No more tinny radios, either -- these soldiers can now pump a bass line like a storm across the sands.

Mendes paces his picture with military-like precision, aided by master editor -- and Bay Area resident -- Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now). Just when we need a break, he inserts a tragically beautiful, almost surreal scene of Swoff discovering an oil-soaked horse in the desert night. It's a private moment meant for reflection, on splendor and horror, or on whatever else we might need to ponder.

Surprisingly, Jarhead is actually a lot of fun, but it comes with its share of roundhouse punches. The biggest comes at the end, when our heroes return home from their pointless sojourn. Trained to handle a rifle and to kill if necessary, they are now raising kids, stacking shelves and driving cars. Mendes deliberately makes these cluttered, commonplace scenes collapse under the vibrant desert sequences. Their senses were awakened, but... then what? Brilliantly following up his recent Oscar win, Foxx has a key scene in the middle of the picture, gazing at the spewing Kuwaiti oil fires and exclaiming how much he loves his job. We laugh then, but we come to understand later. There are different kinds of war, they are all hell, but the hell is combined with a certain perverse thrill. Jarhead gets both right.

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