- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

If war is hell, waiting for war to break out is purgatory. “Jarhead,” director Sam Mendes’ crude translation of Anthony Swofford’s 2003 Gulf War memoir, is a sort of antiwar movie in the sense that there’s very little fighting done. In every other way, the film avoids the kind of political rants that might have endeared the film to the Michael Moore Nation. Nor will it give the ghost of John Wayne any competition for rah-rah patriotism.

Instead, we see both the ugliness of war and how preparing for combat reduces men to their primal instincts. By now, we’re almost numb to the dehumanizing drill sergeants who whip our boys into fighting shape. Yet “Jarhead” surrounds the boilerplate tough love with mesmerizing images — like scenes where the skies literally rain oil droplets — and the absurdity of men begging to fire at living targets.

Young Anthony “Swoff” Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal, in an intense portrayal of a little boy lost in a man’s fighting form) enlists to escape a less than Norman Rockwell home life. Mr. Mendes visualizes his parents’ shortcomings in compact strokes that leave little doubt why Anthony sought an escape.

Swoff gets a swift lesson in male bonding from his fellow recruits, led by Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, who couldn’t appear disingenuous on a dare), a fellow sniper. They become warriors under Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx, brilliant in ways far afield from his Oscar-winning “Ray”), a leader who could resume a lucrative life back home but prefers the military’s high stakes living.

Swoff’s unit gets sent to Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invades the tiny nation, where they sit and wait — for months — while the U.S. and its allies consider military strikes. The Marines pass the time by staging scorpion duels, smuggling alcohol for a raucous Christmas party and blasting unfaithful girlfriends by placing their snapshots on a Wall of Shame.

Slowly, Swoff’s mental state heads south. His stateside girlfriend slowly drifts away from him, and he can’t simply write her off as easily as the others do their ex-loves. He snaps at one point, pointing a loaded rifle at a mealy-mouthed soldier.

By the time the real fighting begins, we’re left to wonder if Swoff is sane enough for the fight. In capturing every dark shade of this disintegrating soldier, Mr. Gyllenhaal justifies the swirling hype surrounding his young career.

No one can watch “Jarhead” and come away thinking war is anything but a horror, if only from seeing the charred bodies littering one stretch of the endless sands.

Mr. Mendes’ “Jarhead” nearly buries itself in crude sequences involving self-pleasure, macho chest thumping and all manner of sexual obsessions. What’s never lost is how far the soldiers must travel mentally in order to kill their fellow man. That’s the kind of apolitical message any sane person can support.

***1/2

TITLE: “Jarhead”

RATING: R (Coarse language, partial nudity, military violence and sexual situations)

CREDITS: Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by William Broyles Jr. based on Anthony Swofford’s memoir of the same name.

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

WEB SITE: www.jarheadmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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