Directed by Sam Mendes
Screenplay by William Broyles Jr.
Based on the book by Anthony Swafford
Jarhead tells the tale of Anthony Swafford’s experiences in the Marines as a sniper and his tour of duty during Operation Desert Storm, from staging in Saudi Arabia to fighting in Kuwait. When he finally heads into action, it’s nothing like he expects, but then it never is for any soldier.
Unfortunately, the film stumbles out of the gate as it opens with Swafford meeting his drill instructor. The scene was clichéd and I had trouble getting attached to the film and the characters because I kept thinking of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.
However, once Swafford gets stationed, the film begins to separate itself from other war films and make a distinct impression by illustrating that the most dangerous and difficult time for soldiers can be when they are waiting around and doing nothing. They are trained and whipped into shape, ready to serve their country by putting their lives on the line. They have to be stronger, smarter and luckier than their enemy. They have to maintain a heightened state of readiness, always on alert because the enemy may strike at any time. That tension has the ability to wear people down when it isn’t channeled properly.
The boredom grows monotonous, but Swafford has helpful tips: “Suggestive techniques for the marine to use in the avoidance of boredom and loneliness. Masturbation. Re-reading of letters from unfaithful wives and girlfriends. Cleaning your rifle. Further masturbation. Re-wiring Walkman. Arguing about religion and meaning of life. Discussing in detail, every women the marine has ever fucked. Debating differences, such as Cuban vs. Mexican, Harleys vs. Hondas, left- vs. right-handed masturbation. Further cleaning of rifle. Studying the mail-order bride catalogue. Further masturbation. Planning a marine’s first meal on return home. Imagining what a marine’s girlfriend and her man Joey are doing in the alley or in a hotel bed.”
The men, for the most part, seem immune to the politics of the war because it no longer matters as the trucks roll through Saudi Arabia. When Kruger, a soldier from Texas, in a nice reversal of a caricature, brings up the arguments that the oilmen back home are in league with the Arabs and the fact that the U.S. used to back Saddam Hussein, his corporal, Troy, played by Peter Sarsgaard, distills the matter succinctly. “Fuck politics. We’re here. All the rest is bullshit.” They all just want to get the job finished and get out alive. All the jockeying back home helps no one when you are in The Suck.
The entire cast is very good. Jake Gyllenhaal brings Swafford to life in a performance that should have garnered more attention. He creates a very real person that experiences a wide range and depth of emotions. Jaime Foxx loses himself in the character of Staff Sgt. Sykes and shows his work in Ray was more than just an imitation. Chris Cooper only has two short scenes, but he is so brilliant as Lt. Col. Kazinski that he makes you crave more.
The cinematography by Roger Deakins is awesome to behold, especially when the oil fields are set afire. The visual effects for that scene are seamlessly blended and even though the logical portion of your brain tells you no living filmmaker would set oil rigs on fire, it looks completely realistic. Many of the desert shots look marvelous, bringing to mind David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. These images would have looked glorious recorded and projected in 70mm.
The DVD is jam-packed with extras. There are two commentary tracks, one featuring Mendes and one with Broyles and Swafford. Mendes gives a very detailed, informative account of the film’s making, offering insight into the creative decisions made and drawing attention to different crewmember’s work. He calls Full Metal Jacket a masterpiece and acknowledges the difficulty in dealing with the drill instructor scene. I found his statements refreshing, and my respect for him grew because he didn’t try to dodge an obvious issue, which he very easily could have done.
Broyles and Swafford discuss the book’s adaptation into a screenplay and the newly created scenes, which were informed by Broyles’ infantry service in Vietnam. Together, they reveal what the scenes are accomplishing and Swafford gives background about the real events on which they are based. Both men shaped the dialogue, which is the script’s main strength. This is evidenced in the line, “Every war is different, every war is the same,” which succinctly captures the film’s theme.
There are a large number of deleted scenes, over 35 minutes, including Swafford’s fantasy sequences and the full news interviews with the soldiers. All have commentary by Mendes and legendary editor/sound designer Walter Murch, who explain the decisions behind the removal of scenes from the film.
The Collector’s Edition of Jarhead comes with the features “Jarhead Diaries,” a behind-the-scenes video of the cast and crew, “Background” a look at the extras who worked very hard to show respect and honor the men they were representing, and “Semper Fi,” a documentary that looks at the lives of marines who have recently served.