JARHEAD (Sam Mendes, 2005)
JARHEAD adapts Anthony Swofford’s memoir of his experiences in the Marines during the first Gulf War. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the author, who goes by Swoff in the film. Swoff is drifting along in life and can’t even tell his superior officer why he ended up in the Marines other than cracking that he got lost on the way to college. Jamie Foxx is Staff Sgt. Sykes, who shapes up a unit that includes Peter Sarsgaard and Lucas Black. Swoff trains as a scout/sniper, but in 1990, when he and his fellow Marines are sent to Saudi Arabia in the lead-up to the Persian Gulf War, they find themselves with nothing to do but hydrate and get an unscratched itch to shoot someone.
Director Sam Mendes’ previous films, AMERICAN BEAUTY and ROAD TO PERDITION, dealt with men stuck in apparently hopeless situations. JARHEAD makes a fitting complement to his prior work. For these Marines, much of their time is occupied with crushing boredom, which lets their minds run amok about their loved ones at home and whether they’ll be there for them when they return. Of course, the alternative to goofing off and fretting about their girlfriends and wives is to be engaged in combat. While some are more eager than others to discharge their weapons, the ambivalence of their situation doesn’t have them ready to lay down their lives, desperate as they are to feel something.
Mendes’ films are notable for striking images (AMERICAN BEAUTY’S rose petals, ROAD TO PERDITION’S incessant rain), and along with cinematographer Roger Deakins, here he captures the surreal nature of the ordeal, from a sky blackened by burning oil wells to a camp set up amid charred human remains.
Considering another war with Iraq is ongoing, JARHEAD remains surprisingly apolitical. A comment or two might question the reasons for going to war, but the film keeps its focus on the burden of the soldiers’ mission instead of grandiloquent statements on current affairs. Instead JARHEAD gives voice to the humor and horror of military service during wartime, the things that those who served will not and cannot convey to civilians.