The problem with making a movie of Anthony Swofford's Gulf War memoir is that you have to be true to the story: Once upon a time, a guy joined the Marines, went to war, and didn't get to fight. The end.
The first half of "Jarhead" chronicles Swofford's training as a sniper, and his platoon's long wait in Saudi Arabia in the fall of 1990 while that other President Bush rattled his saber at Iraq over the invasion of Kuwait; it is indeed compelling, and Jake Gyllenhaal's wide-open presence is just right to guide us through the cycles of humiliation and empty hoo-rah praise that breaks Swofford and his comrades down in order to build them into unquestioning soldiers.
But once they get to the Gulf, the film suffers a kind of schism, splitting into brief, ironic scenes illustrating the futility of training men for a ground war that doesn't need to be fought, and longer pieces where the grunts are put through pointless drills and cynical press-ops.
Eventually, the war does start, but the air campaign is so decisive that the soldiers on the ground have nothing to do but watch the oil wells burn -- a sequence that allows director Sam Mendes to deploy some horribly gorgeous digital effects, but doesn't really do much to illustrate Swofford's inner torment: Having been trained to kill without hesitation, he and his buddies (including a riveting-as-usual Peter Sarsgaard) are going crazy without a target.
As an intellectual exercise, it's kind of interesting, and it's as gorgeously produced as Mendes' two previous features, "American Beauty" and "Road to Perdition." But there's an emptiness to this one that suggests Mendes couldn't find a way to crack the book, and bring it to life with any immediacy.
Yeah, Jamie Foxx has a meaty role as Swofford's charismatic staff sergeant, and Chris Cooper turns up as a commanding officer who briefs his troops like he's running for office. But they're distractions. The real story is happening behind Gyllenhall's eyes, and it stays there.
Universal is replicating its "Cinderella Man" strategy with the "Jarhead" DVD, offering the film as a standard release and in a Collector's Edition with an additional disc of bonus material and a booklet of photographs.
Extras common to both packages are two very different audio commentaries -- an intellectual appreciation from director Mendes, and a rougher, more honest track that pairs author Swofford with screenwriter and ex-Marine William Broyles Jr. - as well as a mass of deleted material: Nearly 20 minutes of deleted scenes, six minutes of additional fantasy sequences, and 16 minutes of deftly improvised media interviews, all presented with optional commentary from Mendes and editor Walter Murch.
The Collector's Edition -- packaged in an elegant fold-out package with a glossy promotional photo booklet -- provides an hour and a half of behind-the-scenes and contextual material that's noticeably absent from the single-disc release: "The Jarhead Diaries" creates a production documentary out of personal videos shot by the cast members on the set, while "Background" highlights the real soldiers who appeared as extras in the production, and "Semper Fi" finds Swofford examining the rough re-entry of former military personnel into civilian life - in this case, veterans of the current Gulf conflict, which puts an interesting spin on the unfinished business of "Jarhead's" storyline.
STUDIO: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
RELEASE DATE: March 7
PRICE: $29.95 (standard) / $39.95 (Collector's Edition)
TIME: 123 minutes
DVD EXTRAS: French and Spanish audio dubs; English, French and Spanish subtitles; audio commentary; deleted scenes. Collector's Edition includes production featurettes and photo booklet.
INTERNET SITE: jarheadmovie.com