Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Review by Devin Sullivan
I went into this film, with a knowledge of the book it was adapted from, and general understanding of the direction it would take. I came out pleased as hell. However, a lot of people are going to expect political undertones about Iraq, or in the case of some girls I met, Jake Gyllenhaal’s lower half. The audience gets neither, though it comes close to both in some respects.
This may disappoint an audience, and if it does, that is too bad. Because, while this isn’t the best film about war ever made, it is arguably the best film about being a soldier ever made. Taken from the memoirs of real-life Gulf War veteran, Anthony Swofford, we are given a portrait of a man, made into a killer, who hasn’t yet been given a chance to kill. Swofford (played, uncharacteristically, with passion by Gyllenhaal) is trained as a marine, and then recruited as a scout sniper. However, when Swofford and his platoon finally get their war, they are assigned to defend Kuwait in Operation Desert Shield. What this entails for Swofford, and many other American troops in 1990, is over a hundred and fifty days in the desert with nothing to do.
While (as the movie portrays it) this sucked for the troops, it’s a great thing for the audience. Most of the film involves all of the ways that the soldiers cope with their boredom. In fact, the actual war (Operation Desert Storm) doesn’t begin until about two-thirds into the film. With this plot, JARHEAD could have been completely boring, but (under Sam Mendes’ directing skill) it is completely entertaining.
There are so many reasons that this film works, but none of them are more prevalent than the fact that, without a doubt, no one could have directed it as well as Sam Mendes. He’s a badass with an honest eye for emotion, and is easily one of the best things to come out of England in the last ten years. (Not to mention that he’s married to Kate Winslet, which proves his badassery.) Mendes has real skill in molding characters honestly, just look at the other two films he has made (American Beauty, and Road to Perdition). Both films are full of characters that are neither good or bad, they are just people in dramatic situations.
Mendes’ skill translates well into the story of JARHEAD, because the account is true. The characters are full of flaws that don’t necessarily get redeemed, but are never without a sense of humanity. All that analysis aside though, what this really means, is that they do some crazy fucking shit, and it’s all great, crazy fucking shit. It’s pretty hard not to be drawn in by the marines playing football in their hazard-suits (that they need in case of gas attacks) or Jake Gyllenhaal naked drunk in a Santa hat on Christmas Eve. One of the better moments of the film is when the Christmas party is interrupted by what they think is an enemy attack.
With all of these events strung together, the film can be a bit slow at times, but it’s all good stuff. Everything is tied together as one fluent piece of work with a lasting impression. As good as Sam Mendes is, he couldn’t have pulled this off without his cast. The performances in this flick are outstanding. Why Jamie Fox ever got by doing goofy comedies, I’ll never know. Personally, I never thought he was all that funny (Except Booty Call, still his best work). Fox’s roll as Staff Sgt. Sykes steals the show at times, and balances out Gyllenhaal’s Swofford. While Swofford provides the angst ridden emotions of an infantryman in his first war, Staff Sgt. Sykes provides a hardened veteran who loves his career. This view of war by Staff Sgt. Sykes is very believable, and despite a pro-war statement in what can sometimes be an anti-war film, everything he says is for the right reasons. Sykes’s pro-war mentality is expressed to an extent that the audience can understand where he is coming from. This is also another great example of how Mendes’ directing style shines in this film. He makes the characters very specific, and presents their points of view honestly.
And honestly, that directing style, some kick ass performances, and a unique memoir by Anthony Swofford all couple together for a great film here. The CGI effects and polish on the, “burning oil scenes” don’t hurt either. Basically, if you go to see this movie, you’re in for a fun romp through Iraq with some kooky characters, a very honest tale of soldiers at war, and some very interesting military incite all wrapped into one.


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