Releasing a film about the Gulf War while the country is in the middle of fighting “Gulf War II” seems to be an inherently political statement. But one of the greatest criticisms of “Jarhead” has been that it lacks polemical bite. Taking the film for what it is, though, a story about the experience of a ground soldier lusting for battle in a war fought almost entirely in the air, “Jarhead” offers a sincere and vivid portrait of what it meant to be a marine deployed to Iraq in the summer of 1990 — a portrait experienced through the self-reflection of Anthony “Swoff” Swofford.
“Jarhead” is based on ex-Marine Swofford’s book of the same title that has garnered much praise and earned itself a place among the classics of military literature. Swofford’s cinematic counterpart is played by the perfectly cast Jake Gyllenhaal, whose large blue eyes — made even more prominent by his jarhead haircut — enhance his highly introspective approach. Indeed, Swoff is an unexpectedly contemplative marine (stereotypically a contradiction in terms) who reads Camus on the toilet.
And reading “The Stranger” is highly apropos for a character who undergoes his own sort of existential crisis — the film is a chronicle of Swofford’s increasing disillusionment and frustration and how it transforms his emotional existence.
Much of Swofford and his fellow marines’ frustration stems from their unsatisfied bloodlust. Preparing for deployment they watch “Apocalypse Now,” finding pornographic excitement in its brutality and carnage. Unfortunately they never find the consummation they seek. One of the marines in Swoff’s division asks after months of waiting, “Are we ever going to get to kill anyone?” Unfortunately for the all of the young marines, their time in the Iraqi desert (or rather its Californian equivalent) is spent waiting for a battle that never comes.
While “Jarhead” is obviously categorized as a war film, it radically differs from others of the genre because it is about a war in which there was little fighting. Indeed, much of the film is devoted to the life of boredom Swoff and his fellow marines are forced to endure — a life that consists of continual rifle cleaning, hydration and excessive masturbation.
Although it would seem challenging to attempt to make a film about men in constant states of anxiety and ennui without evoking similar feelings in the audience, director Sam Mendes manages to keep “Jarhead” entertaining and compelling. Mendes is aided in achieving this feat by superb performances from Gyllenhaal and co-stars Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Troy, Swoff’s dynamic and mysterious shooting partner, and Jamie Foxx, who plays the harsh yet often comedic Staff Sergeant Sykes, who turns out to be a much deeper character than expected.
But despite these compelling performances, it is difficult to connect to any of the characters. Even the usually empathetic Gyllenhaal does not reveal enough of Swoff’s character to allow the audience to fully invest in him. Though perhaps this lack of any substantial emotional connection is intentional. Just as the film refrains from making any explicit political commentary, maybe Mendes keeps the characters at a distance to allow the audience the opportunity to interpret the marines’ actions for themselves. And while this lack of emotional investment may bother some, it gives “Jarhead” an impressive subtlety.
And at the same time that characters may be kept at a distance, “Jarhead” explores emotional crises that most other war movies wholly avoid — namely, how contemporary relationships survive (or fail) during war-related hiatus. Whereas World War II-era wives were proud that their husbands were so bravely serving their country, the film finds the soldiers of the Gulf War in constant worry that the girlfriends and wives they left at home are cheating, often finding their suspicions true.
These unique perspectives on war, while attacked with shallow criticism, are what make “Jarhead” successful. Audiences will be left with insight into the life of a soldier that seems especially pertinent today. Those seeking a traditional “Saving Private Ryan”-esque war movie, rife with violence and viscera, will most definitely leave the theater as unfulfilled as Swoff and his fellow battle-hungry marines. Moviegoers in search of an intellectually engaging look at modern warfare should find what they are looking for, as well as those hoping to see Jake Gyllenhaal sans camouflage.