I've never been a big fan of war movies. (For that matter, I've never been a big fan of war.) But as a genre, they have evolved over the past several decades into something that I can at least appreciate and, in the case of a work like Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, actually admire. When crafted with thought and care, a war movie can ably transmit the shock and awe of the battlefield, the fearless heroics, and just plain fear of facing enemies, facing death.
Most war movies have a clear intent: make an anti-war statement (most of the films involving the Vietnam War are steeped in ironic dissent), or to exalt the notion of the fighting man (think anything WWII, even as recently as Saving Private Ryan). But there sometimes exists a murky middle -- which is precisely where Jarhead dives.
Told from the point of view of a U.S. Marine named Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal), and set during the first Gulf War, the film, based on the bestseller by Anthony Swofford, plays like a mini-memoir. Although the story takes a linear path, it's comprised of episodic elements that strive to add up, under the guidance of director Sam Mendes, into a larger resonant whole. The movie remains stubbornly apolitical, concentrating instead on life itself within a tiny subsection of the battalion. The men, itching for battle, itching to kill, spend their days bored out of their minds in the parched desert heat. When Swoff, a scout sniper, and his spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) finally get the chance to take a perfect shot -- a shot aimed at the head of one of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards -- they must wait for permission to pull the trigger. What happens next provides Jarhead its most cathartic moment.
Unlike his last film, the fine yet straightforward The Road to Perdition, Mendes pushes his creativity, delivering a film that feels inspired by both Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola (both directors are given a nod, though Apocalypse Now is used in a way even Coppola couldn't have imagined, as a means of pumping up the blood lust in the Marines).
Aided by cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes fills his movie with surreal, horrific tableaus. The Marines happen upon the remains of a bombed-out traffic jam, body parts and charred corpses strewn about. Swoff, staggering through a blazing oil field at night comes upon a disoriented stallion coated, like himself and his fellow Marines, in the viscous, black poison. ''The earth is bleeding,'' observes one Marine as he watches the oil rain down.
Jarhead is mostly about the frustration of waiting. Waiting for action. Waiting for orders. Waiting for the kill. What made the first Gulf War situation so unbearable was having to wait in 110 degree sizzle of the seemingly vast, endless desert. ''You will hydrate,'' instructs the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Kazinski (Chris Cooper). ''You will maintain a state of suspicious readiness. And you will hydrate some more.''
With all that waiting, the mind wanders. And the men share a troubling fear of not knowing what their wives and girlfriends are up to back on the home shores. When a ''Dear John'' letter arrives, it's treated as a badge of honor; the men razz each other mercilessly. One Marine gets an explicit surprise from his wife that justifies the movie's R rating on its own.
Jarhead makes no bones about the pent-up sexuality of these young men in their prime. And there are several homoerotic moments that, while not implying gay sexuality within the troops, take the notion of male bonding to the extreme. There's a tendency to sexualize everything. ''I've got a full hard on!'' booms the commander to the troops in appreciation of a loud group response. It's testosterone gone wild.
And it's all enough to make a young man crazy -- and Swoff has his near-brush with insanity during an intense showdown with a timid Marine named Fergus (Brian Geraghty). It's a moment Gyllenhaal carries off with startling ferocity. In fact, with the much buzzed-about Brokeback Mountain next on Gyllenhaal's horizon, it's increasingly clear that this finally may be the young actor's breakthrough season.
If Jarhead marks Gyllenhaal's full-fledged arrival, it solidifies the staying power of Jamie Foxx, who plays the battalion's staff sergeant (''I love my job, ooo-rah,'' Foxx deadpans in a moment we're not certain is meant to be taken as ironic or patriotic) and Sarsgaard, whose subtle, quietly simmering portrayal of a man betrayed by this new kind of warfare -- fast, furious, airborne -- is astonishing. The cast is filled out with young up and comers, including Lucas Black, who tore at our heart strings as the young boy in Sling Blade and who makes a strong impression as company wiseass Kruger.
As a slice-of-life movie, Jarhead works well enough. But it fails to completely connect us to its characters -- there's not much to identify with here (unless, I imagine, one was a Marine deployed during Operation Desert Storm). Still, it makes you consider the frequently harrowing conditions of those men who put their lives on the line fighting for our country, doing what they're told, without so much as a question.
''Every war is different,'' says Swoff at one point in the voice over that sustains the storyline. ''Every war is the same.'' The same could be said for war movies.