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The second mainstream movie to tackle the 1991 Persian Gulf War — after David O. Russell's excellent 1999 adventure Three KingsJarhead fuses familiar elements from Vietnam standards like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, but focuses on the unique existential angst experienced by soldiers in a hi-tech, impersonal war out-of-sync with the troops trained to fight it on the ground. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Anthony Swofford, a misfit Marine who immediately rues his enlistment, and yet leaps at the opportunity to join an elite scout/sniper platoon. When Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army invades Kuwait, Swofford's platoon is one of the first to deploy to Saudi Arabia, and although the soldiers are pumped up for a fight, the political process moves slowly, leaving the troops to linger in the desert for 200 monotonous days of frustrated anticipation. They endure the indeterminate countdown to war in surreal, futile training exercises, like patrolling vast areas of uninhabited desert, and suffer anxieties over their disconnected loved ones back home. The mental stress of boredom manifests in rowdy intra-platoon rivalries, sexual dysfunction, and emotional breakdowns. When "Swoff's" platoon is finally called into battle, the swift and devastating air campaign pre-empts its utility, leaving them dangling and desperate for action.

Directed by Sam Mendes — who won an Oscar for his filmmaking debut, 1999's American Beauty — and adapted from the real Swofford's memoir by another former Marine (William Broyles Jr., an anti-war activist who was drafted to serve in Vietnam), Jarhead has been accused of indulging in politically motivated anti-Marine perfidy, and there is plenty in the film that strains credibility (for example, the Marines' constant lack of discipline and supervision, and no apparent punishment for some very serious transgressions). Swofford's character is confused and confusing, a reluctant soldier, driven to brink of suicide and worse, but also desperate for the action of war, and the movie never gets a coherent handle on his motivations, causing a mortal wound to his potential to elicit empathy. Although it is rarely addressed explicitly, it is briefly hinted that Swofford comes from a family already struggling with mental disorder, which explains his inconsistencies, but also makes him an unreliable guide for such an emotionally charged narrative. Nevertheless, Gyllenhaal has an open and magnetic presence, and his performance digs the most humanity possible out of his schizophrenic character. Mendes, in his short but acclaimed career, has never shown much passion for complexity, preferring to deal in broad caricatures and condescending melodrama, and while Jarhead is an improvement on Beauty's cartoon pretenses, it still suffers from a reliance on easy stereotypes (abusive Drill Instructors, cretinous grunts, etc.). However, Jarhead also features a few believably committed Marines who find noble purpose in facing the bleak madness of war — even one in which all they do is wait for nothing happen. While the movie dips in momentum late into the second act, it provides a provocative, if questionable, glimpse into the personal issues of the post-modern warrior. Also with fine performances by Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx, and brief appearances from Chris Cooper and Dennis Haysbert.

*          *          *

Universal presents Jarhead on DVD in a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. There are two commentary tracks; the first, with Mendes, likely will confirm suspicions of critics who question the motives behind the production, while the second track features screenwriter Broyles and Swofford himself, as they discuss their war experiences and some differences between the screenplay and the book. Perhaps tellingly, Swofford often refers to the character based on himself in third-person. This disc also features 20 minutes of deleted footage, some which fills in holes in Swofford's character, plus extended footage of the "News Interview" sequence and Swofford's "fantasy sequences," all of which feature optional commentary by Mendes and editor Walter Murch. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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