"Jarhead" is a minimalist epic - a grunt's eye view of the 1991 Persian Gulf War that, in more ways than one, never lifts its gaze higher. Directed by Sam Mendes and based on the autobiographical 2003 bestseller by Anthony Swofford, it follows the brief military career of the 20-year-old "Swoff," a Marine recruit and third-generation military man - played by Jake Gyllenhaal - who also narrates the film. Contrary to what we might expect, "Jarhead" doesn't have much to say about the politics of that bygone escapade. More perplexing, it doesn't draw any parallels to our current cauldron in the Middle East. The film raises the question: Why was it made?
Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. seem to be making the point that soldiers are traumatized by all wars in the same way, even if, as in the case of the Gulf War, there wasn't much of a war to fight. In the framework of the movie, basically a portrait of masculine ritual - i.e. men behaving badly - politics are irrelevant.
The recruits in Swoff's company are a more hyped-up version of the typical war movie platoon: there's the gonzo warrior, the father-to-be, the studious type, the braggart, all of them bullied into shape by the usual complement of gung-ho officers.
Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) is the lifer who leads the young men into the Saudi desert. Warriors without a war, they don gas masks and play football in the 112-degree heat and obsess about infidelities back home. A soldier declares to his buddies, "I need to shoot something." Placed under a gag order by the military, they spout happy talk to the press corps. The fighting, most of it done from the air, ends almost as soon as it begins. To their great regret, Swoff, a crack sniper, and his spotter partner Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) never get to kill anybody.
Mendes tries to universalize Operation Desert Storm by getting up close and personal with the marines - as if, in the end, it made no difference whether their arena was the Persian Gulf or Danang or Normandy Beach. In Swofford's book, which is far more pointed than the movie, he writes about squandered lives "being deployed to protect oil reserves and the rights and profits of certain American companies, many of which have direct ties to the White House." Mendes pays lip service to this sentiment, but, as with so much else in the movie, he backs off just when things get interesting.
Emblematic of this problem is a moment early on when a soldier is accidentally shot during maneuvers, and virtually no weight is given to his death. Mendes isn't being savagely ironic here - he's just being blah. Time and again, he flattens out the innate absurdism of the story. War movies are often at their best and truest when they're craziest, and this movie has no craziness in its soul.
Instead, Mendes co-opts the craziness of other directors, other movies. He shows the soldiers whooping it up in the barracks as they watch "Apocalypse Now." (The sick joke here is that, primed for war, they celebrate a classic antiwar statement). He also stages a boot camp scene that is virtually lifted from Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," and he makes passing reference to "The Deer Hunter." All of which serves to point up how conventional "Jarhead" is. One movie that is conspicuously unreferenced is David O. Russell's powerful 1999 Persian Gulf black comedy "Three Kings." No point in making yourself look bad.
Because the ground operations in the Persian Gulf - unlike the "surgical" air strikes - rarely made it onto the nightly news, "Jarhead" for awhile has the force of revelation. But very soon the action devolves into horseplay and hollering. None of the characters, including Swoff, ever really comes into focus.
Gyllenhaal has a marvelous affability, and in a scene near the end where Swoff snaps and almost throttles a fellow recruit, he reveals how terrifying this movie might have been. But Mendes doesn't really know what to make of Swoff, a fresh-faced kid who reads Camus and believes himself less than a man because he hasn't killed. Most often, Swoff's odyssey is simply rendered as standard-issue coming-of-age stuff. Was Mendes afraid to show us more of the malice lurking inside the all-American boy-next-door?
Occasionally a sequence or a piece of acting hits home. The soldiers' trek through a landscape of burning oil wells and charred bodies, with an oil-soaked horse suddenly emerging from the smoke, is appropriately ghastly. (The corpses are like infernal sculptures). Sarsgaard, in a thinly written role, does well as a soldier for whom the war outside is a mere mirror of his inner one. But except for Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard, the acting is surprisingly unsurprising, which doesn't jibe with Mendes's reputation from "American Beauty" as an actor's director. (But then again, I always thought that movie was wildly overrated.) Jamie Foxx, as usual, is a powerhouse, but he never seems to be onscreen long enough.
The wartime climate we now live in has given us new eyes with which to watch war movies. This makes it all the more regrettable that "Jarhead" is so old-style. Because Mendes is not interested in bringing any contemporary relevancy to the material, it's difficult to shake off the notion that "Jarhead" is hugely irrelevant.
I wouldn't feel this way if Mendes had dug deep inside the psyches of these men or given us fresh images of the horrors of war. Despite all the heavy artistic artillery Mendes has brought to bear, his movie isn't all that far removed conceptually from "Top Gun" - which was also about military men itching for a chance to rock 'n' roll. The only difference is, "Top Gun" was unabashedly a popcorn movie while "Jarhead" is a box of unpopped kernels passing itself off as a full meal. Grade: B-
• Rated R for pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content.