Bore of Duty for Gyllenhaal
Every war has a movie and Sam Mendes's "Jarhead" is the movie for the Gulf War. But "Jarhead" is a different sort of war movie; it doesn't take sides on the issues over whether war is right or wrong and is not concerned in showing great battles. Instead it is a movie about how war affects the individual, not by what they see and do but by what they don't do, the monotony and mundaness of waiting out in the desert to see some action only for it to never come. As such there is a fascinating authenticity to "Jarhead" as we watch sniper Anthony Swafford struggle to get through serving in the Gulf War, a war which was won by air strikes rather than fighting on the ground.
Having signed up to join the Marines, Anthony Swafford (Jake Gyllenhaal - Brokeback Mountain) somehow manages to make it through basic training and trained up to be a sniper with Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) working alongside him as his spotter. When the Gulf War stars his unit are sent to serve as part of Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia. But with little to do life is both mundane and stressful for Swafford and colleagues especially as all they get are menial jobs to do and a lot of time to think about whether or not their loved ones are being faithful or not. But when it looks like Swafford will finally see some action as Desert Shield becomes Desert Storm he still wonders whether or not all that training will ever be called upon as the war seems to be being fought with air strikes rather than ground level combat.
"Jarhead" starts with us witnessing Swafford going through Marine training, getting bawled out by a drill sergeant and you can easily think that it will just be a cliche war movie, using elements of "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" amongst others to make a stereotypical war movie about the Gulf War. But "Jarhead" is in fact nothing like these movies, it is a personal account of the Gulf War by sniper Anthony Swafford who spent his time doing menial tasks in the desert as all the action took place in the air. It makes "Jarhead" a different sort of movie and focuses on how war changes someone, not by the killing and fighting but by the insanity of doing nothing in a desert for months on end.
It is this focus on the monotony of a war with no action which becomes so fascinating. We can appreciate how frustrating it was for these men, trained killers to basically spend months going through training drills and finding ways to fill there time. And as such we watch as the monotony becomes stressful leading to them not becoming deranged but doing stupid things as their sense of normality is lost. Plus there is the emotional side of being away from loved ones, constantly questioning whether or not the wife or girlfriend they left back at home has remained faithful. It makes "Jarhead" a very personal movie which shows that for these trained men war isn't about glory but can be soul destroying.
Because of this focus on how war affects the individual, changing them over their tour of duty, "Jarhead" never takes a political stand point. Not once does it feel like it is taking sides on whether war is right or wrong. But instead highlighting that all wars are the same and all wars affect those who serve whether they see action or not.
As well as delivering a fascinating movie which draws you into the emotions of these marines especially sniper Anthony Swafford, Sam Mendes also creates a visually impressive movie. Scenes where the deserts of Mexico stand in for Kuwait are brilliant, both dirty and bland highlighting how monotonous those months doing nothing were. And then there are the oil well fires which it has to be said when used as a backdrop to silhouette the marines are just stunning full of impact. Mendes has basically created a clever movie because whilst he delivers the harshness of war in a desert he somehow manages to make it beautiful via some great camera work.
As for the acting well "Jarhead" is very much Jake Gyllenhaal as it is his character Anthony Swafford who we basically follow, listening to his account of a war where he did nothing. It has to be said that Gyllenhaal not only got into incredible shape for the role but also delivered the mindset of a soldier driven to distraction through monotony. Various scenes such as the Christmas Party in the camp, or the way he answers back are just brilliant but so is the transformation of the character from what almost seems a stupid kid to a man. Paired up with Jamie Foxx who plays Staff Sgt. Sykes and you have two very good performances who basically lead the drama or in many cases the intentional lack of it.
But Gyllenhaal and Foxx are not alone as every single actor puts in a minimum of a solid performance often much greater. Every single soldier has a different facet so we have fear, vulnerability, false bravado and a genuine love of serving making it a diverse but true bunch of characters which we watch.
What this all boils down to is that "Jarhead" is a very good movie and one of the best out of the more recent war movies. It's a fascinating movie because it focuses on how serving in a war where you do nothing ends up affecting a person as much as it does when they are in the thick of the action. And as such it is a revealing movie, highlighting what the trained Marines went through during the Gulf War. And whilst this may sound a contradiction it is also a beautiful movie with some wonderful cinematography which manages to be stunning whilst capturing the dirty bleakness of being camped out in a desert.