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Jarhead failed to set the box office alight and fell foul of the critics upon its release. Now that we can revisit it on DVD, is Sam Mendes’ third film a failure or a misunderstood masterpiece?

Jarhead

Feature


Based on the autobiographical novel of the same name, Jarhead tells the story of  Anthony Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhall), a young man who was born to join the Marines, and did so in 1989. Shortly after joining, he realises he may have made a bad decision and makes some unsuccessful attempts to leave. We follow his journey from new recruit, through his training as a sniper and his eventual tour of duty in the first Gulf war.

Swoff’s deployment to the Middle East does not follow the typical war movie path: it takes six months from leaving the USA to actually seeing some action. I don’t consider it a spoiler to tell you that Swoff doesn’t use his weapon because in reality this is a story about the effects not being in a war has on a young, eager soldier.

The movie starts with a very light-hearted atmosphere. Following Swoff’s initial bullying by his squad mates, he eventually bonds with his fellow recruits and forms a friendship with Alan Troy (played by Peter Sarsgaard). The tone goes downhill slowly from here. Upon arrival in the Middle East, the recruits are still full of banter and practical jokes but they think they are going off to war. They actually find themselves on permanent standby, constantly training and waiting to go into battle and a large part of the film consists of the Marines trying to occupy their time before they finally get to go into battle.

Jarhead
Jarhead is a departure for Sam Mendes, in the sense that he leaves behind the family theme of his previous films and instead chooses to focus mainly on a group of men with nothing to do but play jokes on each other, bet on fights between scorpions they find in the desert and do the things that lonely men do when the only female company they have is pictures of their girlfriends and wives.

‘F*** politics. We’re here. All the rest is bulls***.’

Sam Mendes is not the most prolific director and Jarhead was hotly anticipated as an anti-war opus that would open our eyes to the reality of the current war in Iraq and to spark political debate. Unfortunately for the critics, this was not the case. There is political commentary, but it’s not thrust in your face and the main drive of the story is always the exploits of Swofford and his descent into near-madness through boredom and the constant fear that his girlfriend back home is cheating on him.

Jarhead
Some subtle points are made that are relevant though. For example, a lot of the soldiers’ equipment is faulty and it is obvious to the viewer that many of the problems the Marines had in the first Gulf War still need to be addressed today and the US Army hasn’t learned the lesson. These scenes are incidental to the main narrative and never seem preachy but the occurrences of friendly fire, experimental drugs and oil-well fires (and the almost complete lack of date-stamping within the film) suggest that this could easily have been filmed in the current war in Iraq.

Sam Mendes is a director with a flair for visual devices and uses his directorial bag of tricks that will be familiar to fans of American Beauty and The Road To Perdition. He is a director that wants to remind us that we’re watching a fabrication through the use of freeze-frame, narration, different styles (e.g. interviews, POV shots) and fantasy sequences. It is the fantasy sequences that caused the most difficulty for Mendes (as he mentions on the commentary). The novel has many fantasy sequences and he admits that it was difficult to translate all of them to the screen and keep them in a style that matches the rest of the film. This is probably my biggest gripe with the film. In my opinion, it would have been a more consistent viewing experience as a purely reality-based movie or a Terry Gilliam style out-and-out fantasy/reality melting pot.

Jarhead
The performances of the leads are strong, although Peter Sarsgaard has been purposely edited down to a mysterious character. This has both a positive and negative effect. You’re not quite sure what motivates his character and you feel like you want to find out more but it also takes a lot of the emotion that we’re supposed to feel away from the relationship between him and Jake Gyllenhaal, who convincingly plays an uneasy ex-civilian and his physique could not be more different to the slight Donnie Darko.

Jarhead is a mixed bag and has many relevant and funny moments but I felt that the film was worth less than the sum of its parts. It is not a grandstanding political film but if you approach it as a study of one man’s journey through the Marine Corps to the Middle East and back again, you can still have a positive viewing experience.

Video


Jarhead is a good looking film. Some early training scenes feature high-contrast sunlight that becomes familiar when the story moves to the desert. These scenes have been transferred to DVD well and the brightness does not cause outline or edge problems with the characters on-screen. The later scenes set in the burning oil fields are much darker but also work well, with no obvious compression in the large black shadows.

Jarhead

Audio


The soundtrack is adequate for a war movie without ever being showy. There are occasional scenes with helicopters and planes buzzing around from one channel to another but large parts of the film are filled with young men either talking or shouting, sometimes with contemporary music over the top. That said, there are no problems with the sound quality and it does the job.

Extras


Commentaries are available on all extra features, and by the time you make it through all of them you have a real understanding of the original book and the film-making process (although any kind of ‘Making of’ is quite notable by its absence). The commentaries from Sam Mendes on both the feature and the deleted scenes are quite revealing, and I would say from his point of view the points he makes are possibly too revealing. He discusses his own difficulties with translating some parts of the book to film and integrating the fantasy scenes, which made me think more about his limitations as a director, rather than increasing my appreciation of the film. The feature commentary from the screenwriter (a Vietnam vet) and Swoff himself is valuable to the viewer in helping us to understand the realism of the film. Jamie Foxx in particular receives plaudits from Swoff for his believable portrayal of a drill sergeant.

The deleted scenes are a mixture of whole scenes and extended versions of scenes that made it into the film. They are all worth watching because they develop the characters more and highlight the skills of the actors when you know (from the commentary) that some scenes are almost completely improvised. One of the most interesting deleted scenes is the original opening, with Sam Rockwell as Swoff’s uncle who talks to him about war and being in the Marines.

Jarhead

Overall


Having made it through the movie and all the features, I feel it was a dry experience and it is apparent to me that Sam Mendes did his best to bring a thought-provoking story to the screen but the end result in somewhat lacking. There are a number of genuinely funny moments and the cinematography is impressive—particularly the shots of burning oil fields and while the extras add to the understanding of the film—but I can’t bring myself to recommend buying Jarhead because I don’t think there’s enough in the feature to warrant repeated viewings. You should probably put it somewhere in your rental list, just not at the top.


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