Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx
That war is hell has been demonstrated by countless movies of greater and lesser quality. In most films that hell is characterized by dodging death during nearly every minute, but in Jarhead it's characterized by the inherent boredom of not dodging death and trying to fill countless days in the desert. Jarhead isn't your typical war movie and while it falls short of the profundity to which it aspires, it's a solid piece of work from the most bizarrely underrated Oscar winning director working today.
Set during the Gulf War and adapted from the memoir of the same name by Anthony Swofford, Jarhead stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Swofford, a young man whose directionless life leads him to join the Marines. Once there, Swofford continues to have trouble finding direction until he's invited to join the Scout Sniper course run by Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx). There he's brought into the orbit of Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Fergus (Brian Geraghty), amongst others, and finally finds a sense of purpose. Shortly thereafter Swofford and his team are sent to the Persian Gulf, prepared and, in fact, anxious to kill but instead told to wait. And wait. And wait.
Much of the story is about how the soldiers wait, the futility they feel as they try to fill their days, and the ways that they slowly start to come apart as their ideas about what war would be collide with the reality. The reality is that they are largely unnecessary for the kind of war that the Gulf War was. It's a war dominated by air power and the Marines see little in the way of action beyond the aftermath of US bombing and the effects of retreating Iraqi scorched earth tactics. When Swofford finally gets an actual mission, it's snatched away from him at the last moment and he's forced to watch his target get taken out by an air strike, leaving him feeling cheated and unfulfilled.
Jarhead is, above all else, a story of frustration. Sexual frustration permeates many scenes, as the Marines obsess over the sex that they aren't having and that they imagine their wives and girlfriends are having in their absence. A "wall of shame" is erected for the Marines to post pictures of their unfaithful significant others and Swofford spends a great deal of time worrying that his girlfriend is moving on without him. The Marines' preoccupation with sexual frustration acts as a stand in for their more complex frustrations regarding being at war. They long for a sense of purpose, but that sense of purpose means taking the lives of others and putting their own lives on the line. Director Sam Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. spend a lot of time building and contextualizing the tension, which makes the impact - or "lack of impact" given what little the characters are allowed to do when they're finally released from holding - all the greater.
Mendes, a director who is often (and not necessarily unfairly) criticized for being overly formal and rigid, keeps Jarhead feeling open and free in its movements. He's aided in this by the performances, particularly that of Gyllenhaal who shifts easily between Swofford's more hedonistic and self-destructive tendencies and his very serious and very dedicated attitude towards his role as a sniper. Sarsgaard offers great support as a character who often zigs when Swofford zags, and though he doesn't get a ton to do, Foxx turns in a fine performance as the hardass Sergeant - a role that should be so cliched by now that few actors should be able to pull it off with a straight face.
While Jarhead never reaches the heights of truly great war movies, it's a well made, often entertaining, and sometimes even moving film. The performances are great and the cinematography by Roger Deakins (who is somehow still waiting for his first Oscar win after 9 nominations) is beautiful. Although Jarhead didn't have much of an impact when it was released in 2005, it's a film very much worth revisiting and worth reassessing.