2005, R, 123 min. Directed by Sam Mendes. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Fox, Lucas Black, Chris Cooper, Brian Geraghty, Jacob Vargas, Evan Jones.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 4, 2005

Things we learned from watching Jarhead: War is not hell, war is purgatory, with sporadic excursions to the Delta House to Get This Party Started, Motherfucker; girlfriends/wives are not to be trusted, ever; the Iraqi desert looks sublime when Red Adair’s not in town; screenwriter William Broyles Jr. is still a pro at manufacturing gripping narratives out of men waiting for something, anything to happen (see also Apollo 13).

With Jarhead, the director of American Beauty has adapted Anthony Swofford’s 2003 bestseller about his maddening stint with the Marines during the first Gulf war into an equally maddening movie that portrays Our Boys as either tentative heroes, forever on the cusp but never quite allowed to achieve greatness, or borderline psychotics, preprogrammed for mayhem that never arrives, and who then, consciously or unconsciously, turn the savagery of combat inward. This is a war film with precious little war, which was also the crux of Swofford’s book. So with none of Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guards even displaying the courtesy to show up to the fight, the Marines end up sitting around staging scorpion fights, "hydrating," masturbating, getting outrageously drunk, or worrying what their girls back home are doing (it appears most of them are banging the metaphoric mailman).

Sublimation becomes the name of this grueling 112-degrees-in-the-shadelessness-game, and the 20-year-old Swofford (nicknamed Swoff), a sniper who never once gets to fire his rifle and nearly goes mad because of it, marks his days in a regimented schedule of nonevents. Their advance scout-and-sniper unit’s leader, Staff Sgt. Sykes (Fox) drills them mercilessly throughout boot camp and for kicks makes them play football in full chemical drag for the visiting media, but he’s no R. Lee Ermey. He confesses to Swoff that even though a cushy family job awaits him stateside, he’s chosen to stay in the desert because he loves the gig, which marks him as either mad or masochistic or, best bet, both. Swoff’s target acquisition partner, a quietly simmering enigma named Troy (Sarsgaard, easily the best thing about the film), at first seems to be the unit’s hovering conscience, but ends up, like everyone else, rocketing toward insanity by film’s end.

To be fair, Operation Desert Storm’s ground war lasted a scant four days, with most of the John Wayne heroics (or massacres, depending on your point of view) going to the flyboys piloting the F/A-18 Hornets above, cutting the dusty grunts out of the picture entirely. Mendes’ film sports a wealth of grimly beautiful imagery from the Coen brothers’ regular cinematographer Roger Deakins – the plumes of smoke bursting skyward from the sabotaged oil wells; a shocking, eerie stretch of the infamous "highway of death" littered with the charred corpses of fleeing Iraqis; the crimson glow of a desert sunset – and its smooth, circuitous editing (from the great Walter Murch, whose work on the steadfastly anti-war Apocalypse Now is shown being watched by the Marines as an ironically inappropriate sort of machismo stimulant) moves with the deadly grace of a sandy, shifting dune.

Jarhead fails to ignite much more than those crusty, luminous derricks, however, because it lacks any noticeable tone, political or otherwise; Swoff’s narrative viewpoint is chiefly one of impatience, and when bloodshed fails to materialize, the grunts react like children denied their candy. War not only dehumanizes, Mendes’ film seems to be saying, it also infantilizes, reducing the semi-best and the not-quite-brightest to the level of squalling infants grubbing at high-powered pacifiers and making messes wherever they go. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is a lovely film.

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Jarhead, Sam Mendes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Fox, Lucas Black, Chris Cooper, Brian Geraghty, Jacob Vargas, Evan Jones

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