Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) was not so sure he made such a great move when he joined the Marines, especially after the verbal and at times physical abuse he received from his superiors during his basic training. After that was over, it was a matter of waiting for the call to arms, but while he did that there was a lot of military exercises at his new camp to undergo, and a lot of soul searching about his life choices and the family and girlfriend he had left behind. He wasn't so bothered about his Vietnam veteran father or his deadbeat mother, but he did begin to brood over his girl - would the chance to kill someone alleviate his woes?
A war movie with hardly any war, Jarhead was another Iraq War movie to fail to capture the interest of most of the public when it was initially released, as with pretty much all of the works out of Hollywood based on Middle Eastern conflicts. But there is an audience for this type of thing, and the fact that this one concentrated on the first Gulf War should have given it a measure of recent historical interest. At least we could weigh up the differences between the first one and the second, but actually Sam Mendes' film, based on the real life experiences of Anthony Swofford's time as a Marine, almost went out of its way not to engage in any political issues which you might have thought would have inevitably been brought up.
Instead it's the inner life of Swofford which informs the drama, and much of that is based in deep seated frustration. Perhaps some of that frustration stemmed from Mendes facing up to the fact that much of his film had echoes of previous war movies, and Gyllenhaal comes across as an updated Private Joker from Full Metal Jacket for the early stages at least: we even see the troops being entertained with a screening of Apocalypse Now as if to underline similarities. Eventually Jarhead becomes its own entity, but it takes an awfully long time, with its military humour and harsh lessons to be learned all in the service of the country they're supposed to be defending - which is not America, or so they are told.
No, it's Kuwait they're meant to be liberating from Iraq, and if you're hoping for a goodly amount of satirical jabs at the Western oil business pressurising the United States into looking after their interests, then you'll leave disappointed, particularly as what Swoff wishes most is kill someone. He has been trained as a sniper, and that's what he wants to do, but after the Iraqis invade and he and his unit are shipped out to Saudi Arabia, a long existence of utter boredom awaits while they are given nothing to do. Just about every scene from then on is set in the unending desert, and if the unit were crazy before, here they are sent completely round the bend as their presence and little else is all that is required from them.
Swoff is surrounded by colourful characters which helps in identifying them, as all the cast playing the soldiers wear uniform and have the same haircut, so Peter Sarsgaard plays Gyllenhaal's right hand man, also eager to get some killing done, and Jamie Foxx at his most charismatic plays their sergeant, a man who thrives on simply existing in the army no matter what he is called upon to do. We know how the war affects them because after a while the film starts to struggle to find activity for them, even as they move into Kuwait, and the dreaded speeches start, but the film does make one political point of sorts. That is that with the conflict being pursued by button pushers, all that is left for the man on the ground to pick up the pieces and survey the bomb damage, as in one memorable scene where the Marines encounter a convoy of refugees reduced to charred corpses by American weapons. Mendes does offer a unity of style and a few arresting images emerge from that, but war enthusiasts are surely to appreciate this the most, if they don't mind that essential inaction. Music by Thomas Newman.