He explored the worlds of American suburbia and 1930s gangsters withsuperb results in his previous features American Beauty and RoadTo Perdition. Now, British filmmaker Sam Mendes sets his creative sightson the American Marine in Jarhead, a military drama that isspit-and-polish in practically every regard, except the one that matters themost: having a point.
Jarhead – the self-imposed name of a Marine which should not beconfused with Jughead from the Archie comic books – follows 20-year-old,third-generation enlistee Anthony Swofford (whose 2003 memoir thescript is adapted from, and who is played in the movie by leading man of the moment Jake Gyllenhaal),from boot camp in 1989 to active duty in the first Gulf War a year and ahalf later.
Along with his fellow Marines, which include Staff Sergeant Sykes (JamieFoxx) and Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), his friend and mentor, Swofford heads outto the Persian Gulf Region, sporting a sniper’s rifle, hundred-pound ruck onhis back and a pent-up bloodlust for combat action.
But the deserts of the Middle East offer little in the way of aviolent, cathartic release. For nearly six months, the squadron instead mustdeal with intolerable heat, the threat of Iraqi soldiers using chemicalweapons and, perhaps most deadly of all, excruciating stretches ofboredom.
Jarhead does have quite a bit going for it, with Mendes’ assureddirectorial hand leading the way. Aided by Roger Deakins’ hauntingcinematography, Walter Murch’s excellent editing and another unique butunobtrusive musical score by Thomas Newman (he also scored Beauty andPerdition), Mendes keeps the proceedings moving along at a very briskand entertaining pace. As with his previous work, he also gets greatperformances out of his talented acting ensemble.
Yet, for all of its impressive qualities, the film comes up short of thegreatness achieved by Mendes’ earlier films. The fault lies in William Broyle Jr’s screenplayadaptation. Without a clear purpose or theme, a lack of focus hampers theviewer’s connection with the characters and events on an emotional level,despite the rock solid performances of Gyllenhaal, Foxx and Sarsgaard – whosework is worthy of Oscar consideration.
Is Jarhead anything like Stanley Kubrick’s Full MetalJacket, the war film it resembles the most, a darkly humorous look athow the military and war turn ordinary people into killing machines? Is it acommentary on how the foot solider is apparently of little to no use intoday’s theatre of combat? Or is it an examination of the day-to-day tediumsoldiers face before, during and after wartime?
Were it that the filmmakers – and audience – knew, because at one point oranother, Jarhead is all of these things. By not choosing one as acentral theme or definitive point, Mendes and Broyles reduce what could havebeen unique and remarkable into a film whose parts are muchgreater than the whole.