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War Is Hell: Based on a true story, 'Jarhead' takes an unflinching look at the first Gulf War.

Devil Dogs

'Jarhead' an uncompromising look at Desert Storm

By Jeff Latta

The soldier's life is not easy, but sometimes it is necessary. The same could be said of watching Universal's new release, Jarhead. Although it comes from a long line of war movies, Jarhead does not conform to any cookie-cutter plot line seen before. Based on a 2003 memoir of the same name, it's the first high-profile film to discuss, from a firsthand point of view, the experiences of 1991's Gulf War. It is also unabashedly artistic, helmed by talented director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) and shot by brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Village, A Beautiful Mind, any Coen brothers flick from the last 15 years), who gives a powerful eye to the sun-soaked desert vistas. The shots of soldiers walking in formation amid burning oil wells are a sight to behold, a breathtaking image that demands a pause button.

The story is a deceptively simple one, following young Anthony "Swoff" Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), a third-generation Marine, as he moves from boot camp all the way to Desert Storm. Along the way he spends a copious amount of time in the pre-battle Operation Desert Shield, where the army's stated mission is "to protect the oil fields," and the soldiers' personal mission is to keep from shooting themselves out of boredom.

But just because the plot is inexorably linear and the bulk of it is spent waiting for the fighting to begin doesn't mean Jarhead isn't chock-full of content. Its episodic nature allows a lot of ground to be covered in under two hours. Faulty equipment, friendly fire, the politics of protecting oil fields, technology's effect on the speed of war, the censorship around the soldiers and press, and even Gulf War syndrome are all thoughtfully touched upon in Jarhead.

Like Mendes' breakthrough hit American Beauty, this latest film mingles equal parts black humor and painfully dark realism. While the sudden shift in tone once Desert Storm gets into gear is harsh and unsettling, it doubtlessly evokes the true arc of being a solider thrust into the action.

The soundtrack is as important here as in any of Cameron Crowe's films, adding theme to the work. The soldiers drop f-bombs and other curse words like they're going out of style. Kudos to Universal for trading in a potentially more lucrative PG-13 rating (Jarhead is surprisingly violence-free) for the realism of young men talking how they really talk. A rich and intricate sound design adds further to this pragmatism. It's these small touches and countless others like them that push Jarhead above a war movie of the GI Joe variety (read: Black Hawk Down) to become a genuine artistic achievement.

Mendes coaxes powerful performances out of every one of his actors. Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard and Chris Cooper are all uncharacteristic but surprisingly effective as tough-talking, violence-loving military badasses. While Gyllenhaal spends the bulk of the film moodily wishing he had never joined the Marines, his brief flashes of toughness and madness are inspiring. It is this feeling of madness that is the greatest power of Jarhead; anyone paying attention to the film cannot help but feel, to some extent, what being a soldier does to you.

Though advanced studio press has aimed to paint Jarhead as being neutral toward Desert Storm, the film is clearly antiwar--or at least opposed to the effects that war has on its very human soldiers. And though the end of the film is a message that we have seen countless times before in films of this ilk, it is no less poignant and appropriate. That Jarhead's lessons are particularly timely here in the age of Operation Iraqi Freedom goes without saying, but the film achieves far more with what it shows us about the oft-fragile psyche of a jarhead.


'Jarhead' opens Nov. 4 in the North Bay.

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From the November 2-8, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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