Operation deserve more
Jarhead is full of impressive moments that don’t add up to much
Because it’s concerned with gung-ho young Marines in the first Gulf War, Jarhead grabs our attention by sheer dint of its basic subject matter. Whether it can make a satisfactory contemporary movie out of such inherently fraught material is, however, much harder to determine.
Based on Anthony Swofford’s freewheeling (and much-admired) memoir of his stint in the Marine Corps in the era of Desert Storm, the movie (adapted by Bill Broyles Jr. and directed by Sam Mendes) is both daring and cautious, a quirky kind of war movie in which there’s very little combat action, but a good deal of emotional violence, including much that the youthful Marines inflict upon themselves and each other.
“Swoff” (Jake Gyllenhaal) stands in for author Swofford himself. At age 20, he has that fire in the belly for the Corps, but even as he proves himself in training, he also begins to have doubts about what he’s gotten himself into. The variously conflicted attitudes of Swoff and a few of his comrades is a central subject of the ensuing story, but Mendes and company limit political references and overt social commentary to aspects of the fragmented, tumultuous historical background for its handful of wrenching personal dramas.
The episodic narrative moves from the brutalities of boot camp to the deployments of Desert Shield and on to the end of Desert Storm. The onscreen result is a somewhat uneven collection of big scenes whose mixtures of climax and anti-climax are both part of the point and part of the problem.
Jarhead has a small abundance of memorable incidents—a Christmas party in the desert with accidental fireworks, recruits watching war movies (including Apocalypse Now) as a kind of pornography, a photo-op football game played by soldiers wearing gas masks and protective suits, an encounter between footsoldiers with automatic weapons and distressed nomads riding camels, soldiers and corpses and a stray horse covered in oil against a backdrop of burning oil wells.
Even with those recurring juxtapositions of heroism and absurdity, the overall cumulative effect is oddly neutral and inconsequential. And the same is true, in a way, with the film’s excellent cast. Chris Cooper and Dennis Haysbert do very sharp work as two of the officers, and Jamie Foxx (as the Sergeant in Swoff’s platoon) is even better.
But the biggest moments for the star players (Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard) are mad scenes in very separate parts of the film. In the one, an enraged Swoff threatens to kill a comrade, and in the other Swoff’s sniper-partner goes berserk when they’re ordered not to shoot the enemy. Both moments have great impact, but neither really speaks for the film as a whole.