Jarhead (2005) is a meditative military drama based on a Gulf War memoir written by former Marine Anthony Swofford. The movie follows Tony "Swoff" Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) from boot camp to combat in Kuwait. Watching the film was for me rather like reading the diary of a young man caught up in a love-hate relationship with the Corps, but he has experiences in it he wouldn't trade for anything. For Swoff, his Marine Corps service is a rite of passage.
I realize, however, that Jarhead is not a movie for everyone, and I should warn the unwary that it contains little action and no heroism. There are no stunningly dramatic moments, and there's not much humor either. I would say the film's strength lies in its portrayal of life in the Marine Corps. What makes the movie work for me is its accumulation of detail.
Many of the best military films have antiwar overtones, but I didn't detect any in Jarhead. However, we need to keep in mind the circumstances surrounding the Gulf War. In 1990 Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army invaded and conquered Kuwait. In response, the U.S. led a coalition which included Britain, Egypt, France and Saudi Arabia that in 1991 used military force to run the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
For about half the movie, Swoff's unit is stationed in the inhospitable Saudi Arabian desert, awaiting a decision as to when, if ever, to attack the Iraqis. As the testosterone-driven Marines grow increasingly bored and restless and sometimes behave badly, Swoff goes through some odd, but unrewarding, experiences.
After months of waiting, Swoff finally goes into combat in Kuwait, and it seems to me he not only proves his manhood, he does everything a good soldier should. However, the movie shows this through a series of small incidents, no single one of which is intensely dramatic. When the fighting stops, Swoff seems disappointed, apparently because it turned out that what he did during combat didn't leave him with much sense of fulfillment.
My reading of Jarhead is that Swoff is ambivalent about his Marine Corps service. But I think there's insight into his feelings in the movie's final scene, which takes place years after he's returned to civilian life. As news footage from the Iraq War is shown on his television set, he comes to realize that he'll never be able to completely separate himself from the Corps, and in voice-over he says, "A man fires a rifle for many years, and he goes to war. And afterwards he comes home, and he sees that whatever else he might do with this life he will always remain a jarhead. And all the jarheads killing and dying, they will always be me."
I found the performances to be excellent in Jarhead. Jake Gyllenhaal makes a good Tony Swofford, a young man transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. (When asked by a reporter if he's scared, Swoff replies, "Look, I'm 20 years old, and I was dumb enough to sign a contract.") Also, fine performances are given by Peter Sarsgaard as Swoff's best buddy and Jamie Foxx as the staff sergeant in charge of Swoff's platoon. And there's a memorable speech by Chris Cooper as Swoff's battalion commander, in which he explains to his troups what they're doing in Saudi Arabia: "Our current mission is to protect the oil fields of our good friends in the Kingdom of Saud."
The look of the film contributed greatly to pulling me into Swoff's world. The harsh desert landscapes are especially noteworthy, and there's a hellish sequence where the Marines are showered with oil when the retreating Iraqis set fire to the Kuwaiti wells.
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