Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal, "Proof", "The Day After Tomorrow") is quickly assigned to C Company upon his arrival at the Marine base. Entering the barracks, he finds other Marines struggling to use a homemade USMC brand on a guy's leg. After they finish, they move on to Swoff. Struggling, he passes out as the brand approaches his flesh. When he wakes up, Troy (Peter Saarsgard) explains that he has to earn the brand; the whole thing was a show, for his benefit. Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) picks Swoff and Troy for sniper duty and they begin to train and bond. Shortly after they finish training, Operation Desert Shield begins and they ship out to Saudi Arabia. Eager for action, they quickly become bored sitting in the desert, waiting for some guns to go off.
Director Sam Mendes' follow-up to "American Beauty", "Jarhead" is a film with high expectations that it ultimately fails to meet. It wants to be the next "Full Metal Jacket" or "Platoon" but lacks the key ingredients to get there.
A friend told me that she saw the film as well and liked it because it really captured the experience of going to war, ready to defend the country, and then sitting around waiting for something to happen. She was in the Army for a while and can attest to the accuracy of that part of the film. I can't.
What I can do is evaluate if the film works from a narrative and dramatic point of view. It does and it doesn't.
The film quickly and efficiently establishes Swoff through a series of brief flashbacks and some voice over narration. We learn that Swoff had a screwed up childhood, but we don't really understand why he would join the Marines. His dad was in Vietnam and we quickly learn that this screwed up his family life. So why would that make Swoff interested in joining the military? It would seem to accomplish just the opposite.
Once he arrives at the Marine base, the film becomes a series of scenes that we have seen in other, better films about the military; the abusive drill sergeant, the humiliation of a new recruit, the hard training. After the film moves to the desert, we meet Swoff's buddies in more detail. Again, characters from other, better war films; the joker, the earnest guy who wears glasses and listens to tapes from his family, the family man excited about the birth of his new child, the two Latino men who fight over the differences between their cultures. "Jarhead" can't really be faulted for including these, because we expect that they will be here. And these scenes are done well. They just don't offer anything new.
Once they set out for the desert, the film begins to push the envelope a little, introducing some elements that we haven't seen before. Mendes manages to convey what it was like to sit in the desert and wait, and wait, and wait. But what about this would make it interesting or compelling to an audience? The characters. And this is where the film falls short. Swoff has to deal with the same feelings that all of the men in his company have to deal with. They begin to suspect that their girlfriends and wives are cheating on them which leads Swoff to begin to suspect his relationship with the `girl back home', as he pays daily visits to a bulletin board covered with pictures of the cheating spouses. One day, she sends the t-shirt featured prominently in a sexy photo back to him. So we get that. We get that he is jealous and unsure of his relationship and unhappy. What we don't get is the reason why he starts to act crazy. It's almost as though there is a scene missing in the development of this trait. One moment, he is bored and anxious about his relationship. The next he's buying homemade alcohol and dancing around wearing nothing but two Santa caps, one of which is on his head.
There is also supposed to be a relationship between Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Troy (Peter Saarsgard), the two central characters, we are supposed to live this experience through them. Troy is Swoff's buddy, confident and partner, the guy who `has his back'. In one scene, Troy helps Swoff deal with an issue, but that is about it. There is a scene, late in the film, which is supposed to be the `grand moving moment', showing us how important their relationship has become. It comes off as hollow and formulaic.
All of the production's physical elements are there. The cinematography is beautiful and evocative. The setting is perfect. The editing is great. There are small artistic flourishes throughout that add to the story, without detracting from it. But the narrative elements are lacking.
In addition to a lack of character development, the film doesn't really take a stance for or against the war. In one scene, Swoff and all of his buddies are watching "Apocalypse Now", cheering when the helicopters begin to attack the small village on the beach. I'm sure this is the message Coppola intended for this scene, for this film. In another scene, Kruger (Lucas Black, "Sling Blade", "Friday Night Lights"), one of Swoff's tent mates, begins talking about how the war is being fought for oil, etc. The message is mixed, or non-existent. Why is this important? Because if the film doesn't take a stand, one way or another, why should we even watch the film?
To see the relationship between the characters? It is superficial, at best. So, no.
To watch the great action scenes and/ or battles. Not here. Sorry.
To watch the acting. Maybe. But it isn't enough to warrant a full price ticket.