directed by Sam Mendes
(Universal, 2005)

Jarhead is not your typical war movie. It isn't about some soldier ascending to the plateau of hero or some impossible mission miraculously being achieved or even a slanted commentary on the dehumanization of the soldier experience. Instinctively, the viewer of a war movie looks for something big in the end -- be it a major battle or some philosophical point about war in general. Jarhead doesn't deliver either of these two things -- and that it both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

Jarhead is a personal war story, a truth-based depiction of military life and the Gulf War as one Marine lived it. We meet Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) in boot camp, as he first begins to question his decision to join up. Swoff is anything but a model soldier, yet somehow he manages to get recruited into an elite Marine Sniper unit commanded by Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx). His training is ruthless and difficult, yet his sharp-shooting ability gets him through it, despite a few major incidents along the way. With Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, Swoff and his fellow Marines start to get ready for the real battlefield experience some of them seem to crave. Rather than hitting the beaches running, though, the men are forced to endure month after month in the middle of very hot, very sandy nowhere. Running around the desert in full chemical weapons suits is brutal, but nothing is more agonizing to these Marines than the interminable wait for something to happen. Military discipline or no, it's no great shock when Swoff goes a little stir crazy out there -- what is shocking, however, is that he wasn't drummed out of the Corps for what he did. Anyway, the war finally begins, but it's nothing like what Swoff and his fellow snipers expected. The war moves too quickly for them, leaving the men walking through wastelands littered with death and destruction and enduring the torture of a constant oily rain from all the oil wells Saddam had torched, as all the while they desperately yearn for the chance to actually engage the enemy and do what they were trained to do.

We really only get to know three of the soldiers -- Swoff, who just wants out; Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), who just wants to remain a soldier; and Sykes, a career soldier who believes in and loves serving his country -- but we get a number of viewpoints into Marine life from other prominent soldiers. I daresay the emotional climax of the film is unique among the genre of war films; it's the exact opposite of what I expected and is actually quite jarring to sit and watch. Its significance is reinforced by the film's ending, but I don't think the conclusion works all that well. It's just sort of thrown out there at the end, and I don't think the movie gives us enough to truly put what happens in any real context. It's the kind of ending, though, that makes you ask yourself what the real point of this movie was. I've come to the conclusion that there really isn't a definitive point propelling itself through the script. Managing to tow a rather objective line from start to finish, Jarhead gives you plenty to think about -- but it leaves you to take what you will from the viewing experience.

There are rarely any simple truths to be found in war, and there's more to being a hero than killing more than your share of enemies. Don't go into Jarhead expecting an hour's worth of fierce combat or looking to have your pro- or anti-war beliefs strengthened or challenged. Some people will not like this movie, but I think it's an important film that succeeds pretty darned well in putting the viewer inside the mind of a real soldier.

by Daniel Jolley
25 November 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.