Without warning, waves of déjà vu hit the audience like nerve gas during Jarhead. The adaptation of Anthony Swofford's irreverent memoir chronicles his experiences as a Marine sniper during the first Gulf War. Jarhead periodically hits a time warp when we catch lines like the evening news announcement, "The price of crude oil has more than doubled as President Bush sends in more troops." Wait, which President Bush was that? Whose Gulf War is this, anyway?
Despite the bitterness in present-day arguments over our involvement in Iraq, Jarhead avoids taking sides. Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes pointedly assigns the film non-combatant status in that fight. Mendes' impulse to keep political divisions out of Jarhead suits its point of view: The Marines on the ground care more about proving themselves and serving their country than setting up a New World Order. But despite the film's enormous empathy for the Marines and its engrossing technical proficiency, Jarhead's ambivalence keeps it from carrying out a clearly defined mission.
We meet Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) as a raw recruit having second thoughts about his military service. Jarhead hints at Swofford's troubled childhood but refuses to fill in illuminating details: A series of short scenes literally shuts doors on his mentally troubled sister and Vietnam vet father. Given the opportunity for training as an elite Marine sniper, Swofford falls in with such fellow volunteer Marines as cool-headed Troy (a focused Peter Sarsgaard), bloodthirsty Fowler (Evan Jones) and other men who see military service as the key to the American dream -- or at least avoiding jail time.
Most war movies would make strong, reasonable Troy the central character, since Swofford seems to be the most emotionally fragile of the lot. Even though Gyllenhaal has a warrior's bulk, his big eyes seem almost hypersensitive to pain. When Iraq invades Kuwait and the Marines await combat in Saudi Arabia, Swofford proves increasingly suspicious of his long-distance girlfriend and candidly admits his fears of combat.
Months pass without incident -- hydration and masturbation number among the Marines' primary pastimes -- and the boiling heat and boredom threaten to drive the men stir-crazy. A strung-out Swofford suffers bizarre nightmares and threatens his comrades with violence, making the film feel like Pvt. Donnie Darko, U.S.M.C.
Explosions finally mark the beginning of hostilities, and when ash falls around Swofford's face, Mendes shoots it delicately, like a benediction. The troops encounter burned-out traffic jams with petrified corpses and trek through burning oil fields. The sky darkens, jets of flame issue from the earth, the landscape turns to black muck and even a stray horse strides past, like Death's own steed. Jarhead offers one of cinema's most visceral visions of hell.
The scenes of the Marines tormented in the ravaged oil fields carry an implicit, powerful image of "No blood for oil." But that's as harsh an anti-war critique as Jarhead ever offers. Given that it's anti-Saddam Hussein, detailing the dictator's despicable war crimes, Jarhead arguably supports his overthrow by military means. Mendes could have included some stray lines about the positives of Desert Storm (the widespread international support, the clear exit strategy) to mark a contrast with today's conflict, but opts for a more psychological message.
The film begins with a bellowing, verbally abusive drill instructor chewing out Swofford, and it's impossible not to flash back on the early scenes of Full Metal Jacket. But Jarhead turns Kubrick's film inside out. While the Vietnam epic showed the dehumanization of young men transformed into killers, Mendes looks at the strain on young men trained as killers -- then denied the chance to kill. Just as Swofford reads Camus in his off-hours, so does Jarhead present a kind of existential quandary: The Marines long to risk their lives and kill people, no matter the cost to their safety or their souls. The Gulf War, dominated not by ground troops but air power, unfolds as a cosmic joke on them.
The film deserves commendation for its fluency in American barracks humor. Wildly creative profanity and rueful complaints no doubt have existed as long as war itself, but the United States has put a unique stamp on the military's distinctive voice of deadpan, masculine irony. When Troy and Swofford say, "Welcome to the suck," to describe life in uniform, they march in the boot-steps of Bill Mauldin's WWII cartoons of "dogface" soldiers, films like Stalag 17 and MASH, and even the phrase "Catch-22."
When Swofford's staff sergeant (Jamie Foxx) lowers his hard-ass facade to confess, "I love my job," Foxx injects a hint of wryness in the speech: He may not really love his work, but somebody's got to do it. Jarhead does justice to soldiers' love-hate relationship to the military: They might bitch about the bureaucracy, but they'd give up their lives for each other. For Swofford's comrades, threatening to brand a Marine logo on "new meat" is a prankish rite of passage, but genuinely branding someone becomes an act of true affection. Even though Jarhead dodges coming out against the war, it's unquestionably for the troops.