“Fuck politics. We’re here. All the rest is bullshit.”
2005. Rated R. Directed by Sam Mendes. Based on the novel by Anthony Swofford. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black and Chris Cooper.
This is the first entry in a new regular feature, taking a look at movies that I thought got overlooked by critics and the public but are well-worth seeing. The criteria is obviously subjective, but I’m not going to include movies that won Oscars, were box-office hits, or have become well-regarded cult classics (Fight Club, for example). Nor will I include anything particularly obscure — that will probably be a different feature at some point.
That brings us to today’s entry, Sam Mendes’ 2005 Gulf War I drama Jarhead, which despite starring Jake Gyllenhaal (around the time the Brokeback buzz was growing — Jarhead was released a month earlier) and 2004 Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, didn’t recoup its $70 million budget and received very mixed reviews. Mendes was coming off of Road to Perdition and American Beauty and though it was released late in the year and had Oscar hopes, the movie received no major awards or nominations.
Based on the memoir of the same name written by Anthony Swofford, the film focuses on Swofford (as played by Gyllenhaal) and his time in the Marines, from boot camp to service in the First Gulf War. Though I have not read the book, which was based on Swofford’s real-life experiences, from what I’ve read the film does a good job adapting it despite fudging some of the details.
The first part of the film is Swofford at boot camp, ground that has been tread previously by Full Metal Jacket but is interesting nonetheless. Eventually he gets recruited by Sgt. Sykes (Foxx) to become a sniper, where he develops a strong bond with his spotter, Troy (Sarsgaard, a Wash U alum…that’s right) and then gets sent off to war.
While Jarhead is a movie about war, it isn’t a traditional war movie, focusing more on the day-to-day monotony of being a soldier and the effect of being stuck in a desert has on a man’s psyche. This may have been one of the reasons the movie was misunderstood in its first go-around — there are no true huge battle scenes — it is a slower, more contemplative film that you would expect. Most of the drama comes in the relationships between the guys and their isolation from their normal lives, especially their wives & girlfriends from back home. It’s a perspective that isn’t often shown in cinema.
Mendes does a very good job directing, and the cinematography and production design does an excellent job of giving the audience an idea of what it was like to actually be there. There are some truly memorable, goosebump inducing scenes, including what could be described as the climax. It is a solid, well-done movie all around, and the acting is solid throughout, though only Sarsgaard delivers a standout performance. Foxx doesn’t have much screen time in a supporting part, and while Chris Cooper shows up in a part meant for him, it’s just a glorified cameo. There are many recognizable faces, such as Dennis Haysbert and John Krasinski in a pre-Jim Halpert role.
Gyllenhaal gives the performance his all, and it’s tough to know how much is the writing, but we really never get into Swofford’s head, which considering he’s the narrator, is definitely a weakness. We understand the boredom and isolation and the well-deserved paranoia about his girlfriend, but we don’t get a great idea of what makes him tick. Part of it is probably the source material, but there are times when his behavior is a little too inconsistent and probably exaggerated from real life. From the films I’ve seen him in, Gyllenhaal functions better as a reactor than an actor, and when he’s forced to carry scenes it doesn’t go over as well.
All in all, Jarhead was one of the best films of 2005, and as the second Iraq War drags on it is an interesting look into the mind of a soldier, even if the wars are very, very different. And whatever way the public can be reminded how much being a soldier sucks and how awful war can be is probably a good thing. While it isn’t an epic like a Saving Private Ryan or even the best film about the first Gulf War (Three Kings wins that honor), it has been (unfairly) forgotten pretty quickly. If you haven’t seen it, check it out — it’ll be worth your time.