Jake Gyllenhaal as Anthony ‘Swoff’ Swofford
Jamie Foxx as Staff Sgt. Sykes
Peter Sarsgaard as Troy Allen
Jacob Vargas as Cortez
Skyler Stone as Davis
Lucas Black as Kuhn
Brian Geraghty as Fergus
Laz Alonso as Escobar
Evan Jones as Fowler
Wade Williams as Major
Chris Cooper as Lieutenant Colonel Kazinski
Byron Browne as Bootcamp Marine D.Gillooly
Scott MacDonald as D.I. Fitch
Jocko Sims as Chris Julius
Tom Vick as Marine, 2nd Team/Pvt. Tinker
Jamie Martz as Foster
Rini Bell as Rini
Brianne Davis as Kristina
Chris Kephart as Chevitz
Kurt Larson as Lance Corporal
James Morrison as Mr. Swofford
“Jarhead” may not have the lasting impact of “Full Metal Jacket” or “Apocalypse Now,” partially due to the lack of action, but once it gets going, it’s a powerful emotional journey that brings the debate about the current war into clearer focus.
It’s the summer of 1990, and 20-year-old Private Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been shipped off to Saudi Arabia with a bumbling crew of U.S. Marines to protect the oil fields of Kuwait from neighboring Iraq. With war imminent, he and his Marine cohorts can’t wait to get into the action, although the wait will eventually take the toll on all of them.
In the early ’90s, Bush the Senior sent troops to Saudi Arabia to protect the oilfields of Kuwait. When Iraq moved against them, the resulting war was over almost before it begun thanks to a show of airborne firepower by General “Stormin’ Norman” Schwartzkoff. Marine sniper Anthony Swofford was on the ground to tell the tale, first in his bestselling book and now, in this movie directed by Sam “American Beauty” Mendes.
Following in the footsteps of Kubrick and Coppola is always a daunting endeavor, but unlike their famous Vietnam War epics, “Jarhead” hits closer to home, depicting events still fresh in many minds. Sam Mendes certainly isn’t afraid to embrace the comparisons, opening with a drill sergeant scene straight out of “Full Metal Jacket.” Boy, life must really be imitating art when real Marine sergeants are channeling R. Lee Ermey when dealing with their new recruits. Later in the film, the troops cheer the firebombing scene from “Apocalypse Now” after singing along with the signature Wagner theme, which is probably even more ironic, as we’ll learn later.
Even before he gets to Saudi Arabia, Private Anthony Swofford is a chronic f**k-up, and as he struggles through boot camp and training, it’s obvious that he’s not the type of Marine material that would make his military father proud. There is one thing that he can do well, and that’s shoot a rifle, something which often saves him from being kicked out of the service.
The first hour of “Jarhead” is all about the testosterone. Though war films rarely have parts for women, this is a full-on boys’ club, which may be why the first half lacks any real emotion or drama. Like in the documentary “Gunner Palace” about Marines currently stationed in Iraq, it spends more time watching the guys party, clown around and get into trouble, trying to do anything to kill the time on their hands.
As the troops wait impatiently for some action, so do we. Unlike the current situation in Iraq where ground forces were pivotal, Operation Desert Storm was all about defeating the enemy using firepower. For the Marines who had been through hell to get there, it doesn’t do much for morale, and Swofford keeps hearing stories about soldiers losing their wives and girlfriends while away, something which ultimately gets to Swofford in the form of homesickness and paranoia. He starts to make big mistakes, one of which leads to a heated confrontation with a fellow recruit, the turning point that Swofford clearly is losing his mind. At one point, he stands outside a trench while bombs go off all around him, spraying dust in every direction, one of the film’s eeriest scenes.
Playing Swofford as a cross between Privates Joker and Gomer Pyle, Jake Gyllenhaal gives his most confident and mature role to date, carrying scene after scene. He’s far more impressive in the second half where his amazing transition from bumbling incompetent to patriotic fighting machine is complete.
Peter Sarsgaard plays Swofford’s outspoken spotter Troy Allen, who when not inducting new recruits with a branding iron, spouts cynical anti-war rhetoric and entertains his fellow soldiers with Darth Vader impersonations. The stress and tension of the situation leads him to an unforgettable breakdown scene that quickly reminds you why Sarsgaard has become such a respected actor in such a short period of time.
Foxx is just as believable as their tough superior Sgt. Sykes, unrelenting in his drive to motivate these men to become better soldiers, usually a losing battle, but who also has a sympathetic side. From the beginning, he’s tough on Swofford, but he also knows when to offer advice and a friendly ear. Most will also enjoy Chris Cooper’s brief cameo as the troop’s motivational speaker, Lt. Col. Kazinski, who we can only hope will be seen more in DVD deleted scenes.
Obviously, this is a very different film for Mendes, as different as “Road to Perdition” was from “American Beauty,” but he delivers with a gritty and realistic movie that captures all aspects of the military experience in Kuwait. The use of music from the ’80s adds to the authentic nature of the era, and Mendes used effects masters Industrial Light & Magic to recreate some of the desert scenes including the flaming oil fields of Kuwait, which are just amazing to see on the screen, even though it’s accompanied by devastating death and destruction. With all of the realism, it’s surprising that Mendes chose to cover up a shower scene with shadows, which ends up being more distracting than any nudity.
The significance of seeing Operations Desert Shield and Storm from such a unique first person account is the main reason why this film is so important. From the closing statement, it’s obvious that Mendes opposes the current war as much as Swofford does. The statement by Sarsgaard’s character to “F**k politics” probably says it best though, because true enough, “Jarhead” is a strong enough military drama that it will entertain regardless of which side of the war debate you fall on or whether you choose not to debate at all.
The Bottom Line:
Jarhead is different from most military dramas in its focus on the people rather than the explosions. Once you get past the overpowering testosterone, there’s some true emotion conveyed in this unique view of a military action we only thought we knew.