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Jarhead Has Rewarding Moments


Nov. 3, 2005 – Director Sam Mendes' Jarhead gives us a somber and shocking look at what a Marine was in the 1990 Gulf War, a war in which the U.S. Marines were left without a war to fight.
The movie, based on Anthony Swofford's 2003 memoir of the Gulf War, starts in the traditional way. A fresh young recruit, Tony Swofford, (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes through the usual bitter experience of boot camp with a mean drill instructor, followed by Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) head of Swofford's special sniper unit, who uses humor to ridicule, as opposed to the humorless drill sergeant.
In any event, Swofford is muscled up, along with his fellow jarheads, primed and ready to go to war. They arrive in Saudi Arabia in the fall of 1990. David Denby, in a very long and ponderous review in the New Yorker, says, "The coalition forces built up slowly over months, and, as the screen time passes, [director] Mendes has a serious problem on his hands; how do you make something interesting out of endless sitting around?
The Marines are left with virtually nothing to do, no war to fight. As the air attack devastates the Iraqi army, the jarheads are left with mop-up duty.
Film reviewer James Berardinelli sums it up: "For those who don't remember the Gulf War (or who weren't old enough to watch in unfold in real time on television), here's a brief recap. The conflict started in August 1990, when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, igniting worldwide protests. As diplomatic negotiations stagnated, United Nations troops (primarily from the United States) massed in Saudi Arabia. By mid-January 1991, more than 500,000 U.S. men and women were in the Middle East, and "Operation Desert Shield" became "Operation Desert Storm." More than a month of brutal pounding from the air decimated the Iraqi forces. The ground war, launched on February 23, lasted only four days (or, to be precise: four days, four hours, one minute). A ceasefire was called on February 27, and Iraq accepted terms on March 3."
That's the situation in which the young warriors find themselves. Swofford is joined by best friend Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), Chris Cooper who has a small part as Lt. Col. Kazinski and, according to Berardinelli, steals the scene, and Dennis Haysbert as a Marine major.
Given the spotlight, Berardinelli says, Gyllenhaal "seizes the opportunity with a performance that will generate Oscar buzz."
It gradually dawns on these young warriors, Denby says that they aren't going to have their war.
"Tony's unit turns out to be useless," Denby says. "Stymied, the men fall into a state of adolescent egocentricity: We're just jarheads, a tough, crazy bunch of guys, and nobody gives a damn about us, especially the women back home who are supposed to remain loyal, but who betray us, and so on."
The film is not without rewarding moments. The cinematography is one. Denby says "Jarhead isn’t luscious, [like Mendes' American Beauty or Road to Perdition] but it has been designed for pointed effect. Mendes and his cinematographer, Roger Deakins, establish both dominant and subordinate colors for a given sequence, and they produce some hallucinatory moments: the pale-brown desert seeps so far into the men’s skin that they begin to look like sand crabs; red flames illuminate a dark night sky as hot oil rains down on the men, and we seem to be at the edge not of the desert but of Dante’s fiery lake."
Denby continues, "Stunning as an experience of hellish dislocation, the movie nevertheless comes to a stop in the sand and never really gets moving."
Denby describes how the men fall into so-called horseplay which can escalate into brutal episodes.
He concludes with a sobering observation: "Screenwriter William Broyles and Mendes are saying, I think, that men who are this casually abusive of one another’s bodies could slip, without much provocation, into sexually humiliating detained prisoners. Jarhead is an inglorious portrait of military life which points to the next Gulf War and the degrading japes of Abu Ghraib and other prisons."
The movie, rated R for profanity, sexual situations, nudity and violence, runs two hours and five minutes. It is playing at Sunny Isle Theaters.


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