Generally well-made and well-acted, and at times beautifully shot (particularly in the oil-fire sequence late in the film), Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, alas, doesn’t really work. One marine recruit’s account of his time in “the suck” and his service in Gulf War I, which involved a lot of waiting around in the Saudi desert with nary an enemy combatant in sight, the film is strangely flat and uninvolving for most of its run. It must’ve been hard to figure out a way to make a movie about anxious boredom seem compelling to an audience, and I haven’t read Anthony Swofford’s much-acclaimed memoir, so I don’t really know how much the source material is at fault, but stocking Jarhead with war movie cliches and nods to other, better films was not the correct answer.
As the movie begins, Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) undergoes a mercifully brief stint in Basic Training (a la Full Metal Jacket), before being assigned to a unit under the severe but well-meaning Staff Sgt. Siek (Jamie Foxx). Soon, Iraq invades Kuwait, and Swofford’s unit (which includes an excellent-as-usual but somewhat miscast Peter Sarsgaard, and memorable turns by Lucas Black and Jacob Vargas) find themselves in the Saudi desert, and the interminable waiting begins. Trained to be lethal killing machines, Swofford & co. are all dressed up with no place to go, so they spend their days hydrating, pining over their (serially unfaithful) ladyfriends, running chemical attack simulations, and rather unsuccessfully staving off insanity with machismo and masochism. Finally, they’re given the chance to fulfill their training, only to discover to their disgust that marine infantry are somewhat extraneous in this particular conflict, and they’ll have very little chance to exorcise their ingrained bloodlust. (To which I say, better than the alternative — I suspect very few veterans of live combat situations would share their disappointment.)
In almost any war, long stretches of waiting followed by intermittent bursts of activity is the soldier’s lot, so perhaps Jarhead should be commended for trying to bring this reality into focus. But, I have to admit — and admittedly, I’m as civilian as they come — a lot of the movie rings false. And, even if the many implausible details are in fact true and documented, the movie does itself a disservice by wallowing in broad war movie cliche. We’ve got the aforementioned hellish basic training, the sergeant with a heart of gold, the private who goes bug-nuts psycho in the field, the obligatory descent into madness by the protagonist, so on and so forth. In its best moments, Jarhead riffs on these obvious nods — marines hoop and holler to the valkryie scene in Apocalypse Now, and Swofford complains that The Doors’ “Break on Through” is “Vietnam music.” But most of the time, Jarhead just feels like more of the same.
In sum, if you want to see a great Gulf War I movie, watch Three Kings. Jarhead, unfortunately, is at best a low two-pair.