"Jarhead" is based on the 2003 bestseller by Anthony Swofford, who was sent to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to fight in the Gulf War. Like the book, the movie meanders, but on film, the aimlessness makes you wonder what overall point Mendes is trying to make. We meet Swofford in basic training, in scenes all too reminiscent of Kubrick's 1987 classic. It's all there, from the virginal barracks to the screaming drill sergeant to the men reciting the creepy anthem "this is my rifle, there are many like it, but this one is mine." And we immediately wonder, is Mendes too clever or not clever enough? A possible answer presents itself when the men get a sexual charge from watching "Apocalypse Now" or gather to watch "The Deer Hunter." In a sly moment near the end of the film, Swofford hears a song by The Doors and wonders why his war has to recycle songs from the Vietnam War. And in a conflict that TV news shot mostly from afar, sanitized for your protection, Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) tells the men to keep negative thoughts about the war to themselves when being interviewed for television. These scenes contain jolting moments of new-guard storytelling, but there's too much old-guard storytelling for the film to feel completely fresh.
"Jarhead" is a war movie filled with moments they don't tell you about in other war movies. Boredom is a constant issue, which the soldiers address by eating, reading and masturbating. When combat seems imminent, Sykes demands that his men sign a waiver acknowledging that the pills protecting them from chemical attack are unproven in the field. Refreshingly, political talk is kept to a bare minimum, since "Jarhead" is not a polemic. It's a subjective, minimalist take on one man's wartime experience that avoids most of the slathered-on existentialism that some found disagreeable in Terrence Malick's Guadalcanal diary, "The Thin Red Line."
The movie contains the best work of Jake Gyllenhaal's budding career, as he effectively acts with his long, mournful face. Foxx is growing into his Oscar-worthy stardom, with a performance full of interesting tics. Elsewhere, Peter Sarsgaard feels slightly miscast, a good actor too doughy for his part as the troubled Marine, while standout supporting work is provided by Evan Jones, the loose screw in the outfit. These roles need strong actors because we get scant information about the soldiers as individuals. And when we do get something specific, like Sykes' brother in California, we almost wish we hadn't, since it underscores how little we know about them. Luckily, Mendes has a soft touch that allows him to make the most of his emotional access to the characters.
In its final 30 minutes, "Jarhead" hits full and powerful stride as the men walk an area clogged with smoke from burning oil fields, as if patrolling a distant planet. Toward the end, Swofford and his partner Troy (Sarsgaard) finally get a chance to apply their sniper training when ordered to kill two enemy targets. The result is much like the movie itself, as well-trained men perform an exercise that is noble in purpose but, ultimately, devoid of larger meaning. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx. Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by William Broyles Jr. Produced by Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher. A Universal release. Drama. Rated R for pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content. Running time: 123 min