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Mendes’ ‘Jarhead’ only a half-full Gulf War drama

Sean Sweany | Wednesday, November 9, 2005

“You will train. You will hydrate. And you will maintain a constant state of suspicious alertness.”

Do it all, Sam Mendes fans.

While these words are directed at Marines in the Gulf War movie “Jarhead,” they equally apply to audiences eagerly anticipating this recent directing effort of the Academy Award-winning Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition”).

Just as the Marines’ preparations were mostly useless -since the war did not happen as the soldiers expected – so will potential “Jarhead” fans be disappointed by a film that does not live up to its lofty expectations.

“Jarhead” is a film recounting the memoirs of Corporal Anthony “Swoff” Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Donnie Darko”), who served as a Marine during the Gulf War. As a 20 year-old who enlisted in the Marines rather than flunk out of college, Swofford was a soldier filled with questions and anger about his role in Operation Desert Shield in 1990.

After an opening scene reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), the film continues with any further allusions to previous war movies and sets its own tone. Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx, “Ray”), a tough, no-nonsense, insightful platoon leader, sets the tone. He leads the sniper Swofford, his partner Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, “Flightplan”) and other stock characters. And when the Marines are shipped off to Iraq and placed under the watchful eye of Lt. Col. Kazinski (Chris Cooper, “American Beauty”), the action seems ready to start.

But the only problem is that there is no action.

The Marines spend their time in the desert talking, drinking water, thinking about wives and girlfriends back home, shooting at sand dunes, playing football and preparing for an enemy just over the horizon. When the men actually engage in the war, there is no enemy or battle, just a lot of walking. When the war ends and he returns home, Swofford narrates his war lasted four days, four hours and one minute, and he did not fire a single bullet in that time.

While “Jarhead” may be termed a war movie, it is really a character drama set in a war. The movie does not preach the pros or cons of the Gulf War or the current situation in Iraq. One scene features a character ranting about the politics of the situation until he is cut off by another soldier who tells him that nothing matters except the fact that they are there.

Essentially, this is a film about boredom. Thousands of soldiers were placed in the desert with nothing to do, and “Jarhead” graphically portrays how many of them became insane from the boredom. The film avoids being completely boring itself, but at the same time it fails to stimulate viewers into feeling strongly in any direction.

The sad part about this seeming apathy is that the rest of the film is very well done. Gyllenhaal shows he is one of the top young actors in Hollywood, while Foxx backs up his award winning performance in “Ray” with another phenomenal effort. The rest of the cast, especially Sarsgaard and Cooper, also give stunning supporting performances.

Mendes directs the talent well. His imagery and cinematography – especially when the oil fields are burning and raining oil on the soldiers – make the movie visually breathtaking.

The film is even written well, but there is just not enough writing to fill the jar of “Jarhead.” There are certain scenes that scream for more attention and exposition, only to be abruptly cut short before any substantial significance can be reasoned.

The agonizing part about “Jarhead” is that the weak story is the only thing that keeps this film from being in the pantheon of war films. As it is, “Jarhead” ends up being a technically flawless film that still leaves viewers confused and wanting much more as the end credits roll.