Like the recent North Country, Jarhead takes a familiar story and genre—in this case, the deployment of young soldiers—and banks on the newness of its stars and technology to make the production seem fresh. So if North Country was Norma Rae with a glammily smudged Charlize Theron and a bled-dry color scheme, Jarhead is Full Metal Jacket with a cue-ball-headed Jake Gyllenhaal and an even more amped-up depiction of war-as-confusion.
If you loved the early scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s Jacket in which raw recruits are broken down by a merciless R. Lee Ermey, you’ll love—or be bored by—the even more expletive-spewing, sadistic behavior of Jarhead’s drill sergeant (Scott MacDonald). It’s the same deal, except it happens to “Swoff,” a brainy, rueful character played with admirable restraint by Gyllenhaal, a worthy stand-in for Anthony Swofford, author of the vivid, sharp-witted 2003 memoir on which the film is based. Set during the first Gulf War, the movie follows the 20-year-old and fellow Marines deployed in the Saudi Arabian desert.
The result here is less (as studio publicity materials suggest) Holden Caulfield Goes to War than The Catcher in the Rye Gets Sand in His Eye: a swirling, blurry view of combat, with, as Holden might put it, some good-hearted souls jeopardized by some goddamn crummy phonies leading them. Director Sam Mendes proved in American Beauty that he handles young characters with affection and wariness, while his Road to Perdition demonstrated that there’s no moment of conflict so subtle that it cannot be rejiggered as florid bombast. Swoff and fellow enlistee Troy (Peter Sarsgaard)—together they form a crack sniper team—are overseen by Jamie Foxx, strenuously overacting as Staff Sergeant Sykes to bolster his underwritten part. One minute Sykes is barking cruel orders; the next he’s confiding to Swoff that “I love this job”—partly because, he reveals, it keeps him from a lousy dry-walling gig in L.A.’s own battlefield of Compton.
Mendes may be trying to buffer himself from accusations of aping contemporary war movies by incorporating scenes from films like Apocalypse Now into Jarhead—screened here to whip troops into a bloodlust fury. To be fair, this detail does come from Swofford’s book, but filmmakers cut such stuff all the time, and Mendes might have realized that his movie could do without comparisons to Apocalypse and Jacket, as well as to David O. Russell’s Three Kings and Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Then too, the script by William Broyles Jr. (a real-life vet who did his own version of Vietnam on TV with China Beach) finds its greatest philosophical similarities with Catch-22—both the Joseph Heller novel and the Mike Nichols movie. Broyles and Mendes, as Heller and Nichols Lite, have nothing to say except that war seems, on most days, like a brutal joke to the grunts who wage it, and that the heat of battle forges both heroes and cowards. Jarhead the movie is a far more timid evaluation of military life than Jarhead the book. We’ve reached the point at which it often seems that the only Americans allowed to dilate upon military policy without being buried in bloggers’ attacks are those who’ve actually served; certainly that’s the way Mendes’s sanded-down version of Swofford’s spiky book feels, and even Broyles says the movie is “apolitical.” A line spoken by Sarsgaard’s character—“Fuck politics. All the rest is bullshit”—sums up the “thinking” here.
As a result, Jarhead is utterly predictable (boys endure tough training; boys encounter another culture and are baffled), studded with first-rate performances. Gyllenhaal’s feathery way of expressing emotion while behaving with a young stud’s bravado is a prelude to his fine performance in the upcoming Brokeback Mountain. And while I didn’t believe the slit-eyed-pensive Sarsgaard as a guy so convinced of the art of war that he begs a superior to let him and Gyllenhaal get off a clean shot at an enemy officer, Sarsgaard’s dry-as-the-desert line readings help make Jarhead’s mantra, “Every war is different; every war is the same,” seem a little less like a description for modern war movies as well.