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Photograph by Francois Duhamel

A Shaved Head of His Time: Jake Gyllenhaal joins the Marines in 'Jarhead.'

Burning Men

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as neither an officer nor a gentleman in 'Jarhead,' a story about the Gulf War

By Richard von Busack

DESPITE all the persuasive force of cinema (which is like saying "despite all the hydraulic force of Niagara") antiwar films have proven to be of almost zero effectiveness. In Jarhead, there is a scene that Francis Ford Coppola may not want to see: a theater full of Marines cheering like maniacs at the "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence in Apocalypse Now as the helicopters set out to blow up women and children.

Jarhead's misleading previews promise a grim inspirational story of how the Corps made a man out of a maggot. In fact, the film has more in common with Catch-22 than with An Officer and a Gentleman. That said, Jarhead doesn't stint the effort and willpower it takes to become a Marine. It explains that the semper fidelis ideology is something branded into a recruit—literally sometimes—and that this experience never ends.

Jarhead is based on a memoir by Sacramento's Anthony Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). He was a sniper in the Marines' elite STA, staked out on the Iraq border during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. A third-generation Marine, Swofford went in with the right attitude and a heart's longing to make "a pink mist" out of an Iraqi soldier's head.

But Gyllenhaal's Swofford is stalled by degrading, alienating training, by witnessing death by friendly fire and by dull months of nothingness made endurable only by endless sessions of masturbation. The terrible womanless life is summed up by a "wall of shame" the Marines erect at camp. Photographs of unfaithful girls are pinned on it, captioned with things like: "I loved her so much. She took the kid and disappeared."

Over the course of the film, Swofford and his partner Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) prepare for combat. But at the end of the story, Troy has gone dead-eyed, and not just in a way that's good for a sniper. Troy is the first to figure out the uselessness of a foot soldier in a war where the advances on the front can be measured in terms of miles per hour.

Sam Mendes' previous films, American Beauty and Road to Perdition, were overcomposed. In this, his best movie, a laid-back, spare style suits Gyllenhaal's look of friendly incredulousness. It's a lighter film than the book, where there is more drugs, more machismo, more sociopathic behavior. Incidents like the urban-legendish moment of the homemade porno tape look even more unlikely onscreen. And we hear a touch of glibness in the Thomas Newman soundtrack—the easy irony of the moronic "Don't Worry, Be Happy" contrasted with the pain of basic training. That lapse is redeemed later by a satisfyingly appropriate use of Nirvana's "Something in the Way" during Swofford's near breakdown.

Jarhead is lightened by the supporting cast. Chris Cooper has a couple of scenes as a communications officer who whips up morale with atrocity photos. Jamie Foxx's dry sarcasm as a staff sergeant is ingratiating. He plays an even-tempered Bible reader with a passion for being stationed in hell. And if ultimately Swofford doesn't pass through the baptism of fire he expects, he does witness horrors: the Kuwaiti oil fields lit up under clouds of raining, stinging oil, and a lunch stop beside a freeway covered by roasted civilians.

The political reasons for all this death are immaterial to the Marines. A character called Pinko gripes about the U.S. foreign policy that led to an armed and dangerous Saddam. No one listens. Soldiers aren't supposed to talk about the politics of the war. Civilians aren't supposed to, either, because our soldiers are in it. So who is supposed to talk about it?

If you squint, you can even catch references to Gulf War syndrome, perhaps caused by the pills taken to immunize against nerve gas or by the pollutants the Marines wade through. (Oddly, Mendes makes no references to a likely cause of the mysterious syndrome: depleted uranium shell casings.)

Jarhead is iciest as a service comedy. It jests about those who thought they would gain power by joining the Marines, but who then learned they didn't have a lick of choice once they were inside. I've heard complaints that the film doesn't arc—but Jarhead sums up a great deal of the stasis and repetition of the military experience.

The richer movements include a Marine's embarrassment as he hears a helicopter sail by, blasting "Break On Through" by the Doors: "That's Vietnam music, man! Can't we have our own music?" Back on the mainland, during a welcome-home parade, a ragged, ruined Vietnam vet jumps aboard the bus. The returning Marines feel like they've seen a corpse at a christening. "All wars are the same, and all wars are different," says Swofford in voice-over. A platitude, but also an essential revelation to a young man who thought he could change himself and the world by getting into uniform.

The battlefield sequence will be just as disappointing to war-movie lovers as it is to Swofford. U.S. jets light up the sky with slow, fat balls of fire, just as in Apocalypse Now. But the conflagration is seen in reverse, reflected on a window with Swofford's disappointed face visible through it. The joke's on him. He might as well have stayed at home and watched a movie.

Jarhead (R), directed by Sam Mendes, written by William Broyles Jr., based on the memoir by Anthony Swofford, photographed by Roger Deakins and starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the November 2-8, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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