Jarhead (2005)

Call of Duty gives kids so many wrong impressions.

Anthony “Swoff” Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a third-generation enlistee, from a sobering stint in boot camp to active duty, sporting a sniper’s rifle and a hundred-pound ruck on his back through Middle East deserts with no cover from intolerable heat or from Iraqi soldiers, always potentially just over the next horizon.

When people go out to see war flicks, they are basically expecting all of the works such as action filled with guns blazing, grenades blowing up, tanks shooting up the place, and just a whole bunch of other crazy ish that you could probably reenact on your XBOX 360 or PS3. The thing is though, not all wars were like this and not all war films are like that either.

What I liked most about ‘Jarhead’ was Sam Mendes‘ direction here. Mendes really isn’t a guy that’s known for slam-bang, action war flicks so he doesn’t try to do anything here that he isn’t already familiar, instead he gives this film a new type of edge that shows us just how boring the war really is. It’s much like ‘Three Kings’ in that aspect, whereas that was a bit of a satire on what was going on during The Gulf War, this is more of a serious first-hand account that has the type of realism to it that really works and brings you into this setting and the everyday life of these soldiers.

All they do is sit around and wait for the actual “action” to happen while playing a bunch of football, masturbating a hell of a lot, and drinking like nobody else’s business. Hey, I know it doesn’t sound all that bad but just imagined being stationed out hours and hours away from home with no woman and no time to not worry about anything, then the times may start to get a bit bothersome. It feels very real and adds a lot to the whole aspect where no action at all during a war, can actually eff with another person’s mind. Any time these guys feel like they’re about to just go out there and get some kills, they are once again disappointed by how things just don’t end up working in their favor. And on top of that, your “lady” at home who’s supposed to be waiting for you to come home with arms wide open, is also probably getting banged by your best friend or neighbor. Warfare isn’t so fun and exciting now is it?

Mendes also has a keen eye for making any gritty war flick look pretty and he does that so well here. The shots of these young soldiers in the desert are nice to look at because anything with long-ass landscapes of barely anything look pretty. What really caught my eye with this cinematography was near the end where they light the oil wells on fire and the skies light up with this dark, yellowish look and it’s actually very beautiful but at the same time, very depressing like the mood of this flick.

The only problem this film actually has with itself is that since there is so much waiting and waiting for these guys to actually get a chance to do something, that it sort of keeps the same pace and mood the whole time with barely any real emotional weight in-stored.  There are moments where they take you inside of these soldiers’ heads and get you to understand, but there was never anything here that really made me feel like I needed to watch what these characters were going to do next. It keeps everything the same for the whole flick and as much as I can’t complain about the mood that the film set in right away, I still can say that I wish there was more to this plot, to these characters, and to the heart of this flick.

The film also never really dives into these dudes’ emotional states as much as it should have. Yeah, they showed how these guys were effed up by the fact that they couldn’t shoot anything up but it never goes anywhere deeper other than that. We get a couple of scenes but nothing special and it was kind of a shame because even though this flick does have what it takes to be a really good, and somewhat important war flick, it still dropped the ball on not having too much emotional weight to it. You can only care for so much on the screen and it’s only a matter of time until you start to have no feelings for any of these characters.

One of the real reasons this film works so well is because of Jake Gyllenhaal‘s lead performance here as Swofford. Jake is an actor that is highly underrated because he has so many great roles and performances, but at the end of the day people continue to look at him as Donnie Darko. That’s a shame because his performance here is probably the one thing that keeps this movie so compelling at points. He goes through all of the steps of being a shy rookie, to being a bad-ass in training, and then to being one of those dudes who starts to lose his fuckin’ mind when he doesn’t get the chance to shoot his rifle. Everything he goes through here is believable and it almost seems like this character couldn’t be played by anybody else either.

The rest of the cast isn’t too shabby either. Peter Sarsgaard is really good as Troy, and gets this one scene where he just lets loose on his emotions and it’s a real stunning scene that was also the most memorable; Chris Cooper gets a top-billing but is barely even in this flick with only two scenes and still kicks ass as always; and Jamie Foxx adds more emotional weight and understanding to the “angry black drill sergeant” role here as Staff Sergeant Siek.

Consensus: Jarhead is definitely not the war flick for everyone, actually it’s very anti-war, but what sets this one apart is the direction from Mendes who gets inside the heads of these soldiers and shows what they’re going through, and also features a stand-out performance from Gyllenhaal, who is compelling the whole time.



  1. I thought it was a good film though it was a bit uneven in tone. I know what Mendes was trying to go for and I think he wanted it to be funny but also serious. I just don’t think he got the balance right while some of the stuff in the third act did drag things a bit. So far, it’s the one film by Mendes that I really like though I do think he’s overrated as a filmmaker as I had mixed feelings towards a lot of his films.

    • The tone does get to be a little out there by the end of the flick, but I think it was still a somewhat powerful look at the war that did justice to its novel. Then again, Mendes may not always be the best director for this material, either.

  2. Coincidentally, I actually rewatched this last week and loved it even more. I dunno… I think the argument that it is uneven is an easy one to make, so that’s definitely fair enough. But I just really love everything about it. I’m glad you highlighted the acting, which from my estimation is universally fantastic.

    I love Foxx’s humor in it, like when he first sees Swofford on the toilet, he kicks the stall door in and let’s out a “What the fuck… you sick?” Perfect.

    Great review here Dan.

  3. I still remember this film after I’ve only seen it once, just the time I managed to catch it in the big screen. If you thought it was a beautifully-shot piece, imagine how much more powerful it was on a larger screen. The sequence of the oil wells being lit up on fire is the highlight for sure, one of the most striking sequences I have seen in the last few years.
    Gyllenhaal, like in everything he’s in, offers a solid performance. Nothing extraordinary, but definitely well above average. I’m just waiting for him to finally catch that role that could catapult him into an Awards Season’s darling. It’s just a matter of time.

  4. Totally agree about the direction of the movie. Mendes really makes the best of the story. It’s a pretty interesting movie….I enjoyed the post.

    (you left me a comment about a week ago and I only just noticed it as it was flagged as spam. Don’t know what was up with that!)

  5. As you said it really shows the boredom between combat action and shows thje training and everyday life better than most war films.

  6. The first time I watched this film was on a date and my date fell asleep during it. I love the Gyllenhaal and I was offended that my date was snoring thru the movie.

    People didn’t like this movie because it was a war film that had no action in it. That was the point of the book and Swofford’s story. It’s not Saving Private Ryan or Apocolypse Now. War can be boring.

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