2½ stars (out of four)
The Civil War? You bet. World War II? Of course. Vietnam? Absolutely.
But a major motion picture about the first Gulf War, that air-powered, SCUD-blocking, target-hitting speedy delivery of a war that flashed across our TV sets in night-vision green for six weeks in the winter of 1991? Without the benefit of rogue soldiers and stolen loot, a la David O. Russell's "Three Kings," or a detective story, a la "Courage Under Fire"? What would that movie be about?
Boredom, for one. And frustration. And misplaced aggression.
This is "Jarhead," Sam Mendes' impressionistic adaptation of Anthony Swofford's Desert Storm memoir of the same name, which refers both to Swofford's high and tight marine haircut and to the empty vessel that was his head, ready and waiting to be filled with corps procedure, history and myth.
A ton happens-and nothing at all-in Swofford's book. Ground troops didn't see much action in the desert, so as war stories go, this one is slow to advance and missing the traditional structure of hero, enemy, battle, victory. But the page allows for a deeper dissection of Swofford's past, the minutiae of his days and constant inner dialogue, usually an argument between the Anthony who regrets joining the Suck (soldier's lingo for the Marines) and the Anthony who can't get enough of it.
Inner dialogue is a hard sell on screen.
So Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles pretty much get rid of it. Buzz-cut and bulked up, Jake Gyllenhaal turns in a passionate performance as Swoff, but there's not a lot of introspection required.
Caught reading Camus on the can, Swoff is plucked for an elite sniper unit, seduced by the promise that "the grunt fights for 15,000 poorly placed rounds; the sniper dies for that one perfect shot." Little does he know, the sniper protecting Saudi oil fields never shoots.Instead, he masturbates. He rewires his Walkman. He bets on desert bug fights. He eats sand, wipes it from his eyes and shakes it from his hair, but it's always there.
He gets riled up watching "Apocalypse Now," headbutting his fellow marines and bum-bum-bum-bumming along to "The Ride of the Valkyries," dreaming of the day when he'll unleash all his trained rage. He forgets about the love of a good woman, but remembers his entire sexual history, act by act.
He waits. And walks. And prays that over this next dune sits the enemy. Because above all else, he needs a fight.
Mendes gets inside the tent, pulling us into this all-male world of physical and verbal bravado, the family. As Swoff's partner Troy (snipers always work in pairs-one scouts the shot, the other takes it), Peter Sarsgaard tempers the escalating testosterone with his controlled, monotone delivery, both contemplative and angry. Whereas Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) barks out orders with an unflappable confidence in his military, and Kruger (Lucas Black) spits out his government-issued pills and questions the war, Troy never wastes a word, conserving his emotions for the fight that just won't come.
This is, as you can imagine, frustrating. And it makes for an abstract and frustrating movie, which is both insult and compliment. It was a frustrating and abstract war for Swofford, and Mendes conveys this mood with sustained point-of-view shots, stunners of the oil fields ablaze as Swoff and his unit burn for action in the fiery desert.
But he's so faithful to this mood, this standstill, that he never puts his own mark on "Jarhead," a good, not great movie. This is a war movie without combat-Swoff never fires his gun. But, as another war in the Gulf rages on, it's hard to accept it as a proudly apolitical film, especially when Swofford's book, in shedding such bright light on the military, is political at its core. It's not left versus right or conservative versus liberal, but a harsh, clear look at what it means to be an American, to be a soldier, to wage war.
Mendes peeks, but then shies away, relying on imagery and tone for grandeur and authenticity, giving us as narrow a concept of war as the media did back when it was being fought.
"We are still in the desert," Swoff says as the screen goes black, and Mendes keeps us wandering.
Directed by Sam Mendes; written by William Broyles Jr.; based on the book by Anthony Swofford; photographed by Roger Deakins; edited by Walter Murch; production designed by Dennis Gassner; music by Thomas Newman; produced by Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher. A Universal Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:02. MPAA rating: R (pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content).
Anthony Swofford - Jake Gyllenhaal
Allen Troy - Peter Sarsgaard
Staff Sgt. Sykes - Jamie Foxx
Chris Kruger - Lucas Black
Lt. Col. Kazinski - Chris Cooper