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November 8, 2005 > Jarhead


Directed By Sam Mendes

by Jeremy Inman

Boredom, the anticipation of battle, and the uncertainty of what's going on at home are the themes that haunt the soldiers in Sam Mendes's unconventional film about an unconventional war.

In the vein of Three Kings, Jarhead foregoes the standard war movie formula of anti-war political soapbox preaching and grandiose, climactic battle sequences and instead opts to take a closer, more intimate look at the effects of some of the more bizarre aspects of going to war; these include the emotional and mental preparation for going to war, the simultaneous fear of and perverse lust for active battle, and the subtle effects of boredom and ever-lengthening disconnection from the soldier's life back home. Because of this, it succeeds beyond all expectations.

Based on the memoir of the same name and set against the backdrop of Desert Storm, a war that officially lasted for only four days, Jarhead tells the story of Anthony "Swoff" Swofford, Marine enlistee and member of a small sniper unit, as he and his squad complete their training and eventually adapt to life in the desert leading up to the official start of Desert Storm. The soldiers' battle with a number of issues, most notably a balance of boredom and anxiety, as they repeatedly run through exercises that call for them to navigate imaginary minefields, throw hand grenades at nothing and fire their rifles at nobody. Much of the film is a rather unflattering portrayal of the effects of all this preparation with no eventual payoff, as Swoff and his comrades sit perpetually just on the brink of battle without ever stepping over the fringe.

With no major action sequences, it might be difficult for some people to classify Jarhead as a war movie. Rather, it's a movie about what happens to people who go to war and particularly about the effects of the comparative unconventionality of Desert Storm, a war seemingly lacking in identity and impact. With its mixture of effective humor, haunting cinematography, and outstanding performances from Jake Gyllenhaal as the conflicted Swoff, Peter Sarsgaard as his zealot friend and mentor Troy, and Jamie Foxx as their Staff Sergeant Sykes, Jarhead offers a believable, often disturbing, and often poetic examination of the life of the soldier and the bizarre nature of war itself. This may just become one of the definitive war movies of our time.

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