Grunt Work

Caught up in its own macho symbolism, 'Jarhead' fights a losing battle to show the human cost of warfare

MovieReview C+


Jarhead's title is slang for Marine. Anthony Swofford, or "Swoff" (Jake Gyllenhaal), tells us in the voiceover that it may derive from the "tight, high" Corps haircut and may mean that if you lift the lid of hair you find an empty jar.

In this movie, that's a certainty. Jarhead might as well have been called Jughead. It's about what happens to normally messed-up American boys if you egg them on toward a testosterone-fueled insanity that only brutality can control. The setting is the first Gulf War. In that statement lies part of the problem. The long, slow buildup to the war is no more than a foil to the bottled-up lunacy of the troops.

The lightning war itself becomes a pop-Bosch vista of hell on earth. Flames zoom upward from ignited oil wells and turn the sky above into burnt sienna, the sand below into dirty gold. American planes detonate the tanks of escaping vehicles and transform their drivers and riders into charred-body art. The Marines remain caricatures of caricatures - in their own minds, reflections of the grunts they've seen in Vietnam War movies like Apocalypse Now, Full-Metal Jacket and Platoon.

Swofford's book of the same name (subtitled A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles) earned its readership because of the author's actual history of service and his rhetoric, which started out hardboiled but went beyond. Still, even the book came close to reducing Swofford and his fellow combatants to metaphors of group gut-think and unbridled masculine aggression. And the movie, resisting any depiction of life outside the Corps, crashes down that dead-end road.

After enduring basic training and his initial hazing with "the Suck" (as Marines call the Corps), Swoff pretends to be non compos mentis so he can get out. But then there'd be no movie.

So for reasons known only to director Sam Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles Jr., Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) picks Swoff out of the pack to be a scout/sniper in the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon of the 2nd Battalion. Swoff swiftly becomes one of the movie's three Everygrunts. He's the guy with a wicked combination of gun-craziness and hair-trigger restraint - he points his rifle at a fellow soldier but doesn't pull the trigger. Similarly, Sykes is the slick customer with the cool and ready humor who loves skating the far edge of reality, where he can see oil flames surge like gushers, and Swoff's scout-sniper partner, Allan Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), is the fellow who wants nothing more than to be part of the Suck and to register a clean kill on the battlefield.

Gyllenhaal and Foxx pull off their roles with gritty ease; only Sarsgaard, though, a master of minimalism, conveys sub-surface layers of panic, canniness and cunning. Even the scene in which the Marines unroll cliches for reporters ("America has given freedom to me," says a soldier named Escobar) becomes a bit of a cliche itself.

Far more eloquent than the characterizations are the mass-action vignettes. The jarheads play a football game in full protective gear for the benefit of the press (the Marines' gas masks and drinking tubes fall apart). They endure a cryptic face-off with roaming Arabs before one grunt comes up with a saving scrap of Arabic. Yet even these tense, funny sequences pale before Three Kings.

David O. Russell directed and wrote the final script of Three Kings (1999), about four American soldiers who discover an Iraqi treasure map right after the Gulf War. Russell didn't have combat experience, but did have a vision of worlds colliding in Kuwait, and intersecting, too. His movie managed to be anti-Saddam and anti-Bush without breaking a sweat.

Three Kings predicted the bitterness that would emerge from America whipping up anti-Saddam fervor but providing no backup for Iraqi rebels. And it forged a closer connection between the audience and U.S. soldiers than any other Gulf War documentary or feature. The movie's fictional plot forced our fighting men into an illicit mini-ground war and also tested their moral mettle: In the end, they risked their hides to do some good. Jarhead may have the proper credentials, but compared to Three Kings, it's a jack-high hand.

Jarhead (Universal)

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx

Directed by Sam Mendes

Rated R

Time 123 minutes

Review C+

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