'Jarhead': A Platoon Full of Sand And Grit

Jake Gyllenhaal as Marine
Jake Gyllenhaal as Marine "Swoff" in Operation Desert Storm. (Universal Pictures Via Reuters)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 4, 2005

"Jarhead" is a kind of lightweight variation on Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," with its evocation of the institution known as the United States Marine Corps, its love of the profane poetry of sergeants and the bond felt by young men locked in a common ordeal. But it's not quite a war movie because the author of the book on which its based, Anthony Swofford, didn't quite fight in a war.

There's no doubt that Swofford would have fought courageously and done his duty, like most Marines, to the max. He was a Semper Fi guy the whole way and he joined to fight. And of course he went to war, he carried a rifle -- two of 'em actually, a grunt's M-4 and a sniper's M-40 -- as a member of an elite scout-sniper squad, he jumped off on H-hour, he gave his body up to his country. It's just that while he was willing, the Iraqi army was not. It had better things to do, such as running like hell.

What is left -- and it forms the majority of "Jarhead" -- is a portrait of Swofford and his band of gyrene brothers, wandering haplessly around what seems to be the world's biggest Christo project, looking for action, any kind of action while trying to overcome the soldier's truest enemy, ennui. In the end, the guys run out of war before they run out of energy. The only time they pull the trigger, their weapons are pointed up as they celebrate war's end with one of the most expensive fireworks displays in history.

This may seem as current as today -- the movie certainly connects in almost perfect joinery with the two recent docs on Our Boys in the Sandbox, "Gunner Palace" and "Occupation: Dreamland," in its portrayal of the Gen-X fighting man as essentially a decent and committed young guy -- but in fact it's set in 1991, during the first Gulf War. Swofford, the son of a Vietnam Marine, wanted to carry on that tradition, even if his memories of home weren't particularly sentimental. (Brief flashbacks suggest a grim childhood). Smart, dedicated and tough -- he's not afraid to fight the whole damn platoon when he is first assigned to it -- he gravitates toward the sniping business because it's even more of a challenge, and the film watches as he is one of just a few candidates who make it through the rigorous training, as they learn to look like a tree, act like a bush, slither like a slow snake on a hot day and, as the snipers say, reach out and touch someone.

In Sam Mendes's version, Jake Gyllenhaal plays "Swoff," as he's called, and the movie is set not only in the Marine Corps but in his head. Gyllenhaal does a great job: He's not like Matthew Modine, all smirky irony in "Full Metal Jacket," or Charlie Sheen, all over-educated angst in "Platoon," or John Agar, all innocent patriotism in "Sands of Iwo Jima." He makes us see his character's intelligence (Swoff reads Camus) but he also makes us see the belief: Swoff wants to be a Marine for the pure sake of being a Marine. He's motivated, decent, not a loser on a one-way ride to destruction or a small-towner hoping for a ticket out.

What's so good about the movie is Gyllenhaal's refusal to show off; he doesn't seem jealous of the camera's attention when it goes to others and is content, for long stretches, to serve simply as a prism though which other young men can be observed. Chief among these is his best buddy and spotter (Marine snipers work in two-man teams, a shooter and a spotter, though both are cross-qualified) named Troy, played by the superb actor Peter Sarsgaard. As usual, Sarsgaard is excellent; hard to believe the same guy could play a redneck monster who could beat a girl to death in "Boys Don't Cry" and the editor of the New Republic in "Shattered Glass," and seem perfect for each of the three roles.

But there are others, and the movie has a nice ensemble sense to it. Jamie Foxx plays Sgt. Sykes, the small unit's NCOIC, that is, its lord and master. But he doesn't play it like a lord and master, and if you think of other Marine sergeants -- John Wayne in "Iwo Jima," R. Lee Ermey in "Jacket," Louis Gossett Jr. in "An Officer and a Gentleman" -- Foxx's Sykes will surprise you. He's committed to the corps, but he's not one of those looming macho icons, more rifle than man, so full of confidence and swagger you'd follow him into Hell and maybe even back again. He's intelligent, wise in the ways of leadership, aware of his responsibility to both punish and reward, yet always fair and decent. You have to admire both director Mendes and Foxx for not letting this part expand until it overtook the movie.

And it's honest about the nature of what happened in "The Suck," as the Marines called it with their genius for expressive patois. The waiting was awful: thousands of testosterone-filled kids with extremely lethal weapons stuck in the drear desert as the days, weeks and finally months dragged while strength built and tempers, even sanity, seemed to fray. At one point, when a fellow Marine loses concentration on guard duty and accidentally starts a fire and Swoff is blamed for it (the guy had taken his shift), Swoff seems to go insane: He locks and loads and seems ready to go all Gomer Pyle on the poor kid. But at a certain point, unlike Kubrick's driven-nuts trainee, he realizes it's wrong, he's losing it, and he backs down. The two face each other and understand: It's nobody's fault, that's just the way it is in The Suck.

Once the shooting starts, Mendes ("American Beauty," "Road to Perdition") fills his screen with what most observers of war are most taken with: its surrealism. We end up in an ordeal that seems almost psychedelic, a magical mystery tour of a zone of visual craziness as the squad, on the march across occupied Kuwait, encounters first the "highway of death," where the Warthogs jumped and torched the fleeing Iraqi army, and then the burning oilfields Saddam Hussein left in his wake. Both scenes are vast vistas of destruction and the crispy husks of former human beings, which some will call pointless and others exactly to the point.

That's another thing about "Jarhead." It's far more an evocation than a judgment. The screenwriter, William Broyles Jr., is himself a Vietnam vet ex-Marine, and he doesn't hate the corps or the war or the politicians who invented it. So the movie doesn't have the furious intensity of "Full Metal Jacket" or other screeds, even if it bears an anthropological resemblance. It seems to be saying simply: This is the Suck.

Jarhead (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity and violence.

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