“Are we ever going to kill anyone?” a jaded Marine asks after waiting for an eternity in the desert for the Persian Gulf War to begin. A war movie without combat, many casualties and a political agenda, Jarhead is in a class all its own.
Sam Mendes, the Academy Award-winning director of American Beauty, tackles Desert Storm unconventionally, bringing us a story centered on the soldiers rather than the war itself.
Told through the eyes of Tony “Swoff” Swafford (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose boyish appearance is masked by the unsympathetic haircut from which the nickname “jarhead” is derived, the story becomes personal on many levels. Swoff is a young man who is unsure of his reason for entering the Marines, even claiming that the reason is because he had “gotten lost on his way to college.”
Swoff is trained to become a sniper and is paired with Troy, whose angst and frustration is played brilliantly by Peter Sarsgaard.
As basic training comes to a close, the squadron is shipped to the sands of Saudi Arabia, where they are urged by an exuberant officer (Chris Cooper) to “kick some Iraqi ass!”
From here the film becomes a post-modern look at warfare that features a well-dressed squadron with all the toys but nowhere to go.
Swoff and his men incessantly pleasure themselves out of boredom, play football while wearing specialized gas masks and continually speculate about the fidelity of their girlfriends and wives who were left behind.
Thus is the story of Desert Storm, where the use of computer technology and guided missiles helped dispose of a lot of human combat. Jarhead shows how this war was fought by a generation who idolizes the great wars of their fathers and grandfathers. A powerful and almost haunting moment comes when the squadrons watch the film Apocalypse Now and cheer wildly as helicopters storm the beaches of Vietnam.
This shows how the soldiers took inspiration from past war films, but we are reminded that the Gulf War was no Vietnam and Jarhead is no Full Metal Jacket. However, I can understand how Mendes drew inspiration from these classics and used them within the framework of his film.
Like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now, this film brings intelligence and thought-provoking imagery of an existential battlefield that sometimes lies completely within a soldier’s head.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is the backbone of the film and he has furthered himself as one of Hollywood’s best. But perhaps the finest performance comes from Jamie Foxx, who was recently awared an Academy Award for his performance in Ray.
Foxx’s character, Staff Sgt. Sykes, is a hard-nosed military guru who takes charge of the squadron in a forceful but caring way. His rough and commanding attitude demands respect from his men but does so with compassion. Unlike past characters of his kind, Sykes shows that despite his firmness, he still cares deeply about the well being of his men who are giving up so much for their country.
Jarhead is only the third film by Sam Mendes after American Beauty and Road to Perdition, and he continues to prove he is one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors. Mendes creates a film that is more about the humans involved with war rather than the war itself.
Jarhead does not disappoint and is something that can be enjoyed by members of any political party who are looking to gain a deeper understanding of the effects of modern warfare and the toll it takes on the mind.