“How did you end up here anyway, boy?” a vein-popping Marine drill sergeant yells in the ear of a kneeling Anthony “Swoff” Swofford. As Swoff, actor Jake Gyllenhaal coyly replies, “Sir, I got lost on my way to college, sir!” He is then gripped by the back of the head and smashed face first into a chalkboard.
As the Marines say, “Welcome to the Suck.”
“American Beauty” director Sam Mendes helms the film adaptation of Swofford’s 2003 memoir of his time as an active Marine in the Gulf War during the late 1980s. Gyllenhaal leads a poignant cast of fellow jarheads through basic training, onto the scorching sands of Saudi Arabia and into the heart of Operation Desert Storm.
“Jarhead” has a unique blend of comedy, action and drama that audiences have come to expect from other twentieth century war flicks. Though it surely does not pack the cinematic punch of Vietnam War predecessors like “Platoon” or “Full Metal Jacket,” this film offers a refreshingly sardonic perspective from Swoff’s point of view as he and the crew deal with the typical trials of troops based overseas: finding juvenile ways to cope with unfaithful girlfriends, wives, boredom and insanity, all while coming to terms with their humanity as soldiers.
The film chronicles the life of Swoff, a descendant of Marines trained in the art of the sniper-rifle. Along with his friend Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), Swoff endures a grueling training camp to wind up in the Middle East with little to do besides play football in gasmasks and dehydrate.
“Jarhead” reveals a bold image of the first Gulf War as a time of great uncertainty as thousands of troops were shipped to the desert to fight an enemy whom they rarely saw and for a cause no one could truly understand. The events that unfold in the film are as surreal as they are tragic, mincing between scenes of an essentially nude Gyllenhaal rapping in nothing but a Santa’s hat to soldiers walking among the charred remains of Middle Eastern civilians trying to flee from combat sites.
Pressure mounts on Swoff as he struggles with personal demons and reservations about the war. But before he can go “Section 8” on anybody, Swoff and Troy are sent by Sgt. Sykes on an assassination mission. Excited to see their first real action in the war and still thirsting for that elusive first kill, the two are met with sobering disappointment, as many of Swoff’s team often were, by airborne arsenals which had made the position of snipers obsolete in Desert Storm.
Gyllenhaal excels in his role; he provides both a complimentary voiceover to the film as well as a sturdy emotional onscreen presence. Foxx brings a solid mix of humor and drama to Sgt. Sykes, who is meant to embody the rugged and occasionally philosophical Marine lifer.
However, it is Sarsgaard that truly excels in his role as Troy, a die-hard elite team leader whose life as a civilian is one of a rather sordid past. It is interesting to see throughout the film that as Swoff convinces himself that he wants out of the Marines, Troy wants nothing more than to stay in.
As a war film alone, “Jarhead” is a bit weak, but the dark wit used and profound message that every war is different, yet every war is the same is as strong as any other.
Our rating: Three stars (out of five)