From the quiet perch of the homeland, Operation Desert Storm was an anti-climactic blowout. Billed by Saddam Hussein as the ‘Mother of All Battles,’ it looked an awful lot like a rout by American air power followed by a hasty Iraqi retreat from Kuwait.
The experience of Marines on the ground, however, bore little resemblance to the precision bombing the public saw on CNN. For the men of the Corps, life in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait consisted of disgust, boredom, foreboding, anxiety, and blinding fear, a toxic combination that made for one of the best reads of 2004, Anthony Swofford’s memoir Jarhead.
Fourteen years removed from Saddam’s defeat, Sam Mendes’ cinematic adaptation of Jarhead proves worthy and faithful, capturing the brutal camaraderie of young men on a mission far from home. Through the eyes of ‘Swoff,’ a reluctant third-generation Marine, these impressionable warriors advance through training and find themselves in a war they never imagined.
As Swoff, a shockingly buff Jake Gyllenhall discovers the killing machine within, thanks to the psychological reinforcement of his staff sergeant (Jamie Foxx) and his brothers in heavy arms. When Saddam annexes Kuwait, Swoff and his platoon take up residence in the blistering Persian Gulf region, where they’re psyched up for battle by each other and a pep-talky lieutenant colonel (Chris Cooper, playing a prequel to his character from Mendes’ American Beauty).
Jarhead is deeply conscious both of past wars and past war movies, and you’ll be excused if you occasionally feel like you’re watching Son of Full Metal Jacket, especially in the tragic/hilarious basic training and battle staging segments. And you’ll be excused from laughing violently when Sarge orders his boys to play a pickup football game in their chemical suits for visiting press, and the game devolves into a simulated homosexual orgy.
While the performances are strong across the board, the casting skews curiously old. In Jarhead the book, Swofford tries to convince us that one of the world’s most dangerous creatures is the 19-year-old kid trained by the mighty American military, but hardly anyone in Jarhead the feature film appears fresh out of high school, or even law school. Peter Saarsgard, as Swoff’s sniper partner Troy, particularly looks like he could have a son in JROTC. And while the characters are rich and diverse, even Swoff, the first-person narrator, consciously avoids developing his own background. So don’t worry about the casualties of war; you don’t really get to know these dudes anyway, except that the desert is driving them crackers.
What’s more likely to stick with you is the environment. Mendes’ war-choked Gulf region is an ocean of sand and dust, pockmarked and stained black by explosives from above. Venturing deep into the burning oilfields, Swoff’s platoon walks and sleeps in Hell. ‘The earth is bleeding,’ Swoff mutters. And the horrors are only beginning.
The oil fires are only part of what make Jarhead, if not a classic war film, at least a top-notch and engrossing imitation of one.
The DVD includes commentaries plus numerous deleted scenes (some of which probably should have been in the final cut).