What keeps a well-made film from achieving greatness? How does a motion picture with impressive parts end up a less than compelling whole? When the film is as strong in its elements as "Jarhead," no single factor is strong enough to do the fatal damage. Rather, an intricate web of interlocking reasons undermines the structure from within without anyone noticing what is happening.
Certainly few projects in recent memory have had a more impressive pedigree than "Jarhead," starting with Anthony Swofford's memoir, subtitled "A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles," that was greeted with unapologetically rapturous reviews when it was published in 2003.
The movie team that tackled the story of a young man's wartime coming of age started with screenwriter William Broyles Jr., himself a former Marine, who unobtrusively expanded characters and dramatized incidents. Oscar winner Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") was brought in to direct, hot young actor Jake Gyllenhaal to star, with the much-admired Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx providing support. Editor Walter Murch, cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner are as good as it gets, and music supervisor Randall Poster adroitly integrates ironic tunes like Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" into the mix.
Against all expectation, however, the effect of all this excellence is negligible to nonexistent. As much as we intellectually admire "Jarhead," it's a cold film that only sporadically makes the kind of emotional connection it's after. Problems inherent in taking this particular book to the screen proved impossible to surmount.
To read "Jarhead," named after a slang term for "Marine," is to understand that its success comes in large part from the seductive intimacy of Swofford's style, which takes us deep inside one man's head in an irresistible way. "Jarhead" the movie is after a different game. It wants to show us The Marine Experience writ large, so it has pared back Swofford's voice, turning an interior story into an exterior one and replacing an individual's idiosyncratic thought processes with a series of public incidents — incidents that, with a few exceptions, tend to play out way too standard on screen. It is impossible, for instance, to watch "Jarhead's" opening scenes of Swofford being brutalized by a Marine drill instructor without thinking of innumerable other movies, particularly how brilliantly Stanley Kubrick did exactly the same thing in "Full Metal Jacket." This feeling of familiarity persists as we follow Swofford through military life's inevitable stations of the cross. He meets his fellow soldiers, who first give him a hard time then make him one of their own. He attracts the notice of a staff sergeant/tough-love parental surrogate and becomes a member of an elite scout/sniper unit. He prepares for combat, gets sent to Saudi Arabia when Kuwait is invaded, and waits for the call to invade Iraq and begin the killing he's been trained for.
Though moments in this journey — it wouldn't be fair to diminish what small impact "Jarhead" has by giving them away — stand out as individual, most of what we see feels like something we've seen before. Even Swofford himself seems to realize this, screaming when he hears a Vietnam-era Doors song in the combat zone, "Can't we even get our own music?" And the film's thematic sense that the experience of war is not what these young men anticipated goes back at least as far as "All Quiet on the Western Front" 75 years ago.
Making matters worse is that the thing that sets Swofford's military experience apart is the Gulf War's near absence of heavy combat, so his involvement in killing did not exactly match Audie Murphy's or Sgt. York's. That postmodern lack of action and what it does to Swofford's head are among the book's strengths. But existential crises — symbolized in the movie by having Swofford tote around a copy of Camus' "The Stranger" — play best on the page. Philosophical implications aside, when nothing much is happening on screen, it is hard not to feel bored.
Those feelings are exacerbated by Gyllenhaal's opaque performance as Swofford. As his work in the forthcoming "Brokeback Mountain" underlines, this is ordinarily an empathetic actor. Playing a character enveloped by the fog of war while trying to reconcile being simultaneously a part of and apart from the Marines, Gyllenhaal here is reserved, distant, almost featureless, even when he is trying to be emotional. "Jarhead's" most impressive performance comes not from him but the always reliable Sarsgaard, who walks off with the movie as Swofford's closest friend, Troy. Troy aside, Swofford's fellow Marines — profane, sadistic, as hyper-macho as moronic, drunken frat boys — are not exactly a pleasure to be around. Their loud, tedious presence, hardly a surprise, is undoubtedly true to life, but, unmediated by Swofford's involving prose, it serves no discernible purpose except further distancing the movie from the audience.
Providing the final touch to "Jarhead's" litany of problems is an ironic accident of timing. While Swofford's book, a decade in the making, benefited by being published during the buildup to the current Iraq invasion, Mendes' film is hurt by coming out in the middle of that conflagration. Its polished surfaces and professional style can't compete with the gritty reality conveyed by documentaries like "Gunner Palace" and "Occupation: Dreamland" — or, for that matter, by the surreal black comedy of David O. Russell's "Three Kings" — that show in no uncertain terms what it's like to be a soldier in Iraq. Something "Jarhead," good intentions and undeniable skill notwithstanding, doesn't accomplish.
MPAA rating: R for pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content
Times guidelines: Shots of corpses burned to a crisp
Released by Universal Pictures. Director Sam Mendes. Producers Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher. Executive producers Sam Mercer, Bobby Cohen. Screenplay William Broyles Jr., based on the book by Anthony Swofford. Cinematographer Roger Deakins. Editor Walter Murch. Costumes Albert Wolsky. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Dennis Gassner. Art director Christina Ann Wilson. Set decorator Nancy Haigh.
Running time 2 hours, 2 minutes.
In general release.