Jarhead

November, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Sam Mendes

Starring:Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black, Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper , and producer

British wunderkind Sam Mendes has quite a pedigree; winner of the prestigious Critics Circle Award for directing Judy Dench in "The Cherry Orchard" shortly after his graduation from Cambridge, Mendes went on to join the Royal Shakespeare Company and subsequently created a series of memorable productions before turning to film-making at age 34, in 1999. Although now considered somewhat over-rated, his first effort, the highly regarded American Beauty won 5 Academy Awards, (including those for direction and best film). In the wake of its success, Mendes seemed poised to slip comfortably into the boy-genius shoes of Orson Wells. 

But Road to Perdition, the director's sophomore outing, wasn't nearly as well received; despite lush cinematography and the frightening appeal of Paul Newman as a patriarchal gangster, Perdition didn't contain anything particularly original. It was simply a period crime drama, burdened by the miscasting of Tom Hanks as a mob underling who goes on the lamb with his son after the boy witnesses a gangland hit. 

Mendes retreats even further from consideration as a memorable director with Jarhead, his third feature film; it's based on the highly regarded memoir by real-life Marine grunt Anthony Swofford, (whose self-lacerating examination of his service in The First Gulf War ranks with the best in recent military writing). In bringing Swofford's book to the big screen, Mendes employs often stunning camera work and an authentically rugged cast to conclude the following: (1) not only is war hell, even boring preparations for it in the desert are sufficient to constitute a hitch in Hades, (2) as a result of its time-tested training techniques, the Marine Corps succeeds in bringing out the very worst in the naïve young men foolish enough to enlist, screwing them over in the process and (3) having returned from combat, soldiers find they're never completely free of its consequences. A recruiting piece for the military this most definitely is not. It's also annoyingly bereft of the author's redeeming freshness.

Swofford's book records, in telling first-person prose, the growing maturity of a bright but impressionable kid with the ability to separate the wheat of his military service from the crappy institutional chaff it came packaged in. But Mendes and veteran screenwriter William Broyles Jr. shift the viewpoint into the third-person in this examination of the journey from wife-eyed innocence to numbed maturity and Swofford becomes, not the interpreter of his own experiences, but rather someone simply shaped by them. That shift from gimlet-eyed self-awareness to straight- forward participation robs the movie of its author's authentic voice; despite Jake Gyllenhall's energetic performance as Swofford, the opportunity to put the audience inside his head never materializes. 

Mendes surrounds Gyllenhall with a chorus of able talent; Chris Cooper scores again as a gung-ho colonel who's as anxious to believe his own bullshit as he is to sell it to the impressionable men in his brigade and the always intriguing Peter Sarsgaard slides all too credibly into semi-psychosis as Gyllenhall's tightly-wound friend and platoon leader. But it's Lucas Black, (Sling Blade, All the Pretty Horses) as Private Kruger who steals the acting honors; his sardonic Texas Hill Country twang in perfect pitch, Black's Kruger gets to toss off lines laced with thoughts worthy of Swofford himself and the talented actor makes the most of them.

Mendes does create a number of striking images; desert patrols which take place in topography desolate enough to be located on the far side of the moon, football games conducted in full chemical-warfare garb, nocturnal troop movements back-lit by the eerie glow of sabotaged oil wells spewing flame into the desert sky--but none of it amounts to anything. The fact that such a conclusion is precisely the point Mendes is trying to make however, doesn't allow him the privilege of dissipating the film's energy in order to accomplish his task. As he seeks to convey his characters' frustration, loneliness and fear, Mendes creates a studied distance, (reminiscent of Road to Perdition) which prevents real audience connection; the director labors for fastidious authenticity in settings and storyline, but delivers it all with characters that look like they're engaged in acting class exercises rather than conveying vivid examples of restless, confused males, barely past adolescence, who are being asked to risk their lives for loved ones far away and geopolitical objectives insufficiently examined. 

Take the legitimized sadism contained in the military training scenes found in the first third of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, weld it onto the silliness of Demi Moore's desert exploits as a Navy Seal in the last reel of Ridley Scott's G.I. Jane and you'll have some appreciation of Mendes' Jarhead; like the author's real-life experiences, lots of slogging in the sand with precious little to show for it. If the director had worked harder to allow Swofford's voice to simply speak for itself, he might have given us a movie as capable of skewering a recent American military adventure that's as slyly effective as the one produced by Swofford's pen.        

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