The Harvard Law (DVD) Review: Jarhead


Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter SarsgaardDirected by Sam Mendes

The Film:

Jarhead, as a film, is a little hard to define. It’s not exactly a war movie about honor and valor and soldierly brotherhood like Saving Private Ryan, for example. It’s not exactly a war movie about the futility of war or the psychologically damaging effects of basic training like Full Metal Jacket.

It’s not even really a war movie. It’s a film about the experience of being a soldier in a specific time and place, with all of the pride and affection, as well as the boredom and anxiety, that go along with it. Here, it’s the lack of war that is the real problem, as the hurry up and wait attitude of the military causes the soldiers to lose their grip.

The film follows future Lance Cpl. Anthony Swofford (Gyllenhaal) as he joins the Marines, more than likely to please his father (though I prefer the explanation he gives his drill sergeant – “I got lost on the way to college.”). When Saddam invades Kuwait, Swofford and the rest of his sniper unit, including partner Troy (Sarsgaard) and Staff Sgt. Sykes (Foxx), prepare to head over, kick some Iraqi ass, and be home within two weeks. Instead, they are assigned to guard Saudi oil wells, a job not as relaxing and glamorous as it might at first seem. The combination of the heat, the tedious passage of time, and the fear – both of being exposed to Saddam’s nerve gas and of having their girlfriends leave them for other men back home, quickly begins to wear away at the men. This leads to several breakdowns among them, as Swofford nearly kills another soldier for getting him in trouble, and Troy explodes on an officer for refusing to let them take a shot at one of the enemy. Yet somehow, despite being forced to play football in 100+ degree weather wearing full gas gear, of being made essentially obsolete by bombing technology, and of discovering the charred corpses of a group of Iraqis killed by a bombing run, these men partially enjoy, even love, what they do. But why? Is it for love of country? Is it just the desire to kill people? Is it because the military is the only thing they know? In the film, as in life, the reasons depend on the men, but the experience’s power to shape them is universal.

Mendes shoots the movie beautifully -the settings look like a cross between Mars and Hell, and do a great job of evoking the isolation and alienation that the soldiers feel. Likewise, he gives a sense of the tedium faced by the soldiers without actually boring the viewer – some helpful (and funny) exposition lays out the daily routines, and we see the events that light the powder kegs that the situations have set up. The performances are solid for the most part – Gyllenhaal is able to firmly carry the film, and Jamie Foxx is entertaining, though his part isn’t all that challenging. The one exception to this is the resident unnamed soldier whose function is to remind the others (and the viewer) that America’s motives in the region are not entirely altruistic. His dialogue is forced and unrealistic – it is no wonder that most of his part was pulled from the final cut.

The Extras:

“Swoff’s Fantasies”: A collection of deleted scenes made up of a series of the main character’s daydreams – I would have liked to have seen these included in the final cut, actually. They give the viewer a sense of Swoff’s inner workings, and as they become more extreme (from seeing his drill sergeant in a dress to planning the death of another officer), they better establish Swoff’s diminishing hold on reality.

“News Interviews in Full”: Extended versions of sequences in which the soldiers are interviewed by reporters. The commentary here is very interesting, as Mendes talks about the extent to which the actors got into character, developing opinions, histories, and rhythms not their own. They also go into some more depth in terms of answering my earlier question about why they love what they do.

Deleted Scenes: Another twenty minutes of deleted scenes here, including a deleted cameo by Sam Rockwell as Swoff’s uncle that confirms my theory about his joining up because everyone in his family did it before him. I think the information belonged in the film, but Rockwell is pretty creepy as he tells a child to prepare to go kill people in Beirut when he gets older.

Rating: ***

The film is very well put together and gets its point across, but it’s not perfect. Maybe you had to be there.

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