Jarhead (2005)

(In theaters, November 2005) Most military fiction either glorifies the nobility of war or decries its murderous nature, but there’s a little-known third alternative, that of military service as a long stretch or boredom, loosely interrupted by terror, dashed expectations and boys being boys. More or less faithfully adapted from Anthony Swofford’s blisteringly honest autobiography, Jarhead follows the path of a Marine as he undergoes training and is then shipped off to Saudi Arabia just in time for Desert Storm. Director Sam Mendes gives a decent polish to this modern wartime story, but it’s what doesn’t happen that gives the film its unique edge: the protagonist’s testosterone overload is never quite satiated by the war, even though it is likely to end up being his life’s defining moment. Jake Gyllenhaal turns in a decent performance as “Swoff”, but it’s Jamie Foxx who steals the show as a professional soldier who does actually find satisfaction in being a warrior. (Hoo-Ha.) There’s plenty of political resonance between this and the American occupation of Iraq, but readers of the original volume will be disappointed by how Swofford’s explicit critique is here relegated to a minor character’s ranting. Visually, the film has a number of great moments —including a walk through a burning oil field. What doesn’t work so well is the suggestion that there’s a much better picture lurking under the surface, a movie with more daring and more energy. A movie closer to the book, one is tempted to say. Ultimately, Jarhead veers too closely to its subject matter: boredom.

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