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ISSUE 119 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/11/2005

'"Jarhead" Reinvents war movie genre

By John Douglass
Variety Editor

Friday, November 11, 2005

Once in a long while a movie comes along that defies convention, turns all expectations upside down and ultimately offers the audience something completely original. Sam Mendes’ recent film, “Jarhead,” is one such movie.

The conventions it plays with are those of one of the most simultaneously adored and reviled genres in the history of cinema: the “War Movie.” At heart, Jarhead is a war movie, but it is a different kind of war movie about a different kind of war.

The film follows the life of Anthony “Swoff” Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), from his first days in boot camp to his inclusion in elite sniper training, before zeroing in on his active duty in Saudi Arabia in preparation for the first Gulf War.

The film, based on Swofford’s own memoir of the same name, is an intensely personal account, with Gyllenhaal’s Swofford receiving the director’s attention almost 100 percent of the time.

Even though on the surface “Jarhead” may seem like a typical war movie, it is anything but typical. The film diverges from typical war movie genre conventions early on. The bulk of the movie follows Swofford and his corps, including his intense best friend and sniping partner Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), as they wait for any sort of action.

The movie is first and foremost concerned with the psychological effects of this waiting, with those most intensely involved: the soldiers themselves. We watch as Swoff and Troy slowly reach the brink of madness, stuck in the desert with nothing to do except drink water and reflect. We watch as they wrestle with their simultaneous desires not to fight and also to put their highly trained selves to some use.

Mendes is a director with a history of reinventing genres with intense character focus. He first tackled the suburban family drama in “American Beauty” and followed that with an intimate take on the gangster movie with “Road to Perdition.” “Jarhead” is a fitting follow-up in this direction, although perhaps not quite as refined.

Mendes is a masterful director, and he packs “Jarhead” full of moments of arresting beauty. The burning Kuwaiti oil fields are a particularly strong image used to great effect. He also makes use of initially surprising humor and sarcastic, jaded voice-overs, assumedly lifted almost directly from Swofford’s memoir.

The true standout performance of the movie, however, belongs to Gyllenhaal. He instills Swofford with an endearing – though sometimes terrifyingly guarded – persona, only occasionally giving into the madness that sits and simmers below the surface.

Sarsgaard and Foxx also turn in fantastic performances. Sarsgaard is a bottled-up, calm sniper who only once loses it when he is ordered to not take the only shot the war has offered him. Foxx manages to be both intense and fatherly as the complex Sykes.

“Jarhead” is a different kind of movie, and an important one. In its depiction of the war movie, it remains almost entirely apolitical, instead focusing its attention simply on those involved. I believe Mendes’ method of addresing the psychological effects of war is admirable, and something that our country needs.

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