Jarhead deals with the whole Desert Storm operation. We follow the protagonist Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) through his boot camp military training and on to sniper school and from there to the desert. The Gulf War breaks out and Swofford is sent to Saudi Arabia with Desert Shield. After 174 days Desert Storm begins. It doesn't last for more than five days and then the whole experience is over.
There are some inherent difficulties to making a war movie without taking all the established war movie clichés into account. What you can do, and what Jarhead does do, is incorporate them, blatantly and obviously. Jarhead uses the Ride of the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now! as a sing along scene. It references Full Metal Jacket in the obligatory boot camp scene in a way that makes the viewer feel that the drill instructor has taken his lines straight out of the movie. The Deer Hunter figures in one marine’s public humiliation when his wife has sent him the movie but tapes over it with a home movie porn version of her own adultery. As a matter of fact the movie is saturated with intertextual references to movies, TV-shows and literature – everything from Hemingway to Camus' The Stranger.
In a way this hyperawareness of the intertextuality creates a kind of saturation that makes it difficult to thread the connections into anything coherent. It becomes the backdrop for the main story, Swofford's experiences in the desert. Swofford's voice over offers all kinds of opinions about the abusive behaviour of his superiors, the nature of the soldier's life and problems at home.
The one thing more prevalent in this movie than any other war movie I have seen, is the frustration of inaction. All the training, all the waiting, it translates into stupid mindless games and drills and penalism and some very messed-up group dynamics when the soldiers are trapped in a holding pattern they can't do anything about.
Swofford says “For most problems the Marine is issued a solution. If ill, go to sickbay. If wounded, call a Corpsman. If dead, report to graves registration. If losing his mind, however, no standard solution exists.” This sense of frustration and pent up aggression translates well enough to the viewer in the scene where Swofford and his spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) finally get a mission and are interrupted when they literally have their target in the crosshairs. They never get to take the shot and then the campaign is over.