At first glance, the film “Jarhead” appears to be yet another war drama displaying a day in the life of the average marine. However, the film travels much deeper into the psyche of men who spent years of training, and preparing, sent to war and given nothing to do.
The story, narrated by marine Anthony Swofford, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal (“Proof”), is based on Swofford’s 2003 Gulf War memoir, Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles.
The movie’s title, “Jarhead,” is slang for marines as reference to their hair style, where the hair around the scalp is cut close to the skin, leaving the top at a longer length resembling the top of a jar.
Swofford comes from a difficult home life which is briefly told in the beginning minutes of the film. He expressed that his only option left was to join the marines.
After basic training he is sent to the scout/sniper unit. There he trains to shoot from long range, practicing for days on end to perfect his shot. When the boys in the unit finally get the call to go off war, they are elated. However, they soon find themselves walking through the desert in the blazing heat and digging holes at night to sleep in.
Gyllenhaal’s performance may not be enough to garner him a nomination during Oscar time, but he does have his strong moments.
He displays a playful side when joking around with other jarheads during a Christmas Eve party wearing a Santa Clause hat and little else. Another pivotal moment came when Swofford suffers an emotional breakdown after being demoted to private for shoving one of his responsibilities to another marine. Swofford later on confronts the marine and aims his riffle at him, threatening to kill him. He then thrusts the gun around and instigates the marine to kill him instead. Gyllenhaal pulls off the scene powerfully.
Where he fails is the action in between, when scenes do not call for an extreme display of emotion.
“Jarhead” has a strong supporting cast. Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx (“Stealth”) plays Staff Sgt. Sykes and goes beyond the typical portrayal of a bellowing, foul mouthed superior officer. Foxx’s character offers the reason behind the kind of men who develop entire careers around the armed forces.
Another noted performance is by Peter Sarsgaard (“Flight Plan”) who plays Troy, Swofford’s mentor and colleague. Troy keeps the men in his unit on their toes, and serves as the voice of reason. Troy enjoys his life as a jarhead and would want nothing more than to serve another tour through what he constantly refers to as “the suck.”
The film also offers subtle hints at controversial issues that surrounded the Gulf War.
There are many situations where the marines complain about faulty equipment or not having equipment at all. They are forced to swallow pills when they are not sure if the pills are effective and sign a waver so the government cannot be blamed for any side effects.
Perhaps the most potent example is when the marines are ordered to speak positively about how wonderful their lives are in the war by Sgt. Sykes prior to a television interview. If they hint otherwise, they will be firmly reprimanded. Several of the marines ask Sgt. Sykes about free speech to which Sykes replies that it does not exist in their situation. One comments on how they are defending the freedoms that they do not possess.
Overall “Jarhead” is an amalgamation of the emotional drama of war, action of the battlefield, and comedic part of every day life including the marines’ down time and relationships.
It has a tendency of being a tad melancholy at times, but has a powerful message at its core, and that experience alone is reason enough to see it.