Film Reviews


By • Nov 4th, 2005 •

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Universal presents in association with MP Kappa Prods. / a Lucy Fisher / Douglas Wick production in association with Neal Street Prods.
MPAA rating R / Running time — 123 minutes

A disappointing war movie with not one shot fired, no visible enemy, and soldiers standing around in the desert. More gay than CAPOTE.

AMERICAN BEAUTY director Sam Mendes lets the Jarhead Marines do nothing but stand around the desert with their shirts off. On Christmas Eve the soldiers drink, start a bonfire, and only wear strategically placed socks.

War is Hell? Where is the fearsome enemy that brought over a half a million U.S. soldiers to the desert?

Based on Anthony Swofford’s 2003 Gulf War battlefield memoir, JARHEAD has a tough, sandy terrain to hoe. We have all seen PLATOON, FULL METAL JACKET, and the long, long version of APOCALYPSE NOW. So have the Marines. These are their recruitment films.

Not all war memoirs should be made into films. However, if you want to create a leading man, you’ve got to get him bulked up and have him do something manly. Find him a Marine sniper movie.

After all that training and the war cries, the bottom line is that the twenty-year olds of JARHEAD go to the Arabian desert and hang around.

Does JARHEAD take a stand? Is it pro-war or anti-war? I couldn’t tell. It was murky. Instead, it was a showcase for rising star Jake Gyllenhaal. It left me and others exiting the theater with the thought that the best thing to do was to have stayed home (from the war and the movie.)

Swofford (Gyllenhaal), 20 years old, joined the military because his father was a Marine. An unhappy family life made the Marines a good idea (not the signing bonus, education, training, medical, or combat pay), but then a war started and soldiers were sent to Saudi Arabia. (Director Mendes, so good visually understanding family dynamics, glosses right over the reasons why Swofford opted for the Marines. He wanted to emulate his miserable dad?)

We will not see a movie about Marines without the brutal training, the foul-spurting sergeants, the vomiting, the fear, the verbal abuse, and the rifle-love. Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) selects Swofford and Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) for the scout/snipers unit. These two will become partners. In Arabia now, their elite unit also consists of Fowler (Evan Jones), Fergus (Brian Geraghty), Cortez (Jacob Vargas) and Escobar (Laz Alonso). These guys have nothing to do but masturbate, gripe, dance, and squabble.

They’re 20 years old. I didn’t expect Sartre conversations on the meaning of nothingness but I did expect some insight into the Gulf War conflict – from a “boots on the ground” position – and its affect on the soldiers.

Mendes and his cinematographer Roger Deakins paint a gorgeous bleached-out landscape. But it is not enough. The muted colors, consistent throughout the film, separate us from any intimacy with the soldiers. If it were a movie about sand, I would say it was stunning. Finally, the unit goes into enemy territory but the fighting is already over in a destroy-from-above operation by the time they get there. The Jarheads walk around the burned-up bodies. They cry. All that training, all those shoveling foxholes, and they never fired a shot!

Gyllenhaal, shedding his dopey Donnie Darko face, hits the right tone: He’s twenty for God’s sake and wants to kill somebody! He exhibits more charisma than he has in the past, but it will take carefully chosen directors to broaden his appeal. His breakout role is still ahead of him. Sarsgaard is always good and he’s just too intelligent to go along with this unit of frat boys turned soldiers. Foxx is righteous and looks like he loved prepping for the role. His character is not interested in making friends – his story should have been pivotal.

It’s not that I’m bloodthirsty. I just thought JARHEAD was a war movie and the filmmakers were going to show us what really went on. All I know from JARHEAD is that the soldiers were forced to hydrate.

Swoff: Jake Gyllenhaal
Troy: Peter Sarsgaard
Kruger: Lucas Black
Lt. Col. Kazinski: Chris Cooper
Staff Sgt. Sykes: Jamie Foxx
Fergus: Brian Geraghty
Cortez: Jacob Vargas
Fowler: Evan Jones
Escobar: Laz Alonso

Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriter: William Broyles Jr.
Based on the book by: Anthony Swofford
Producers: Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher
Executive producers: Sam Mercer, Bobby Cohen
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Dennis Gassner
Music: Thomas Newman
Co-producer: Pippa Harris
Costumes: Albert Wolsky
Editor: Walter Murch

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