Enlist for Mendes' look at the Marine Corps

by Beacon Staff • November 2, 2005

Jarhead is the true story of Anthony Swofford's time spent in Kuwait during the Gulf War, based on his 2003 best-selling book. Swofford, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, is a 20-year-old, third-generation Marine enlistee who sarcastically jokes that he "got lost on the way to college." At least this is what he says before having his head slammed into a chalkboard by an officer in the Marine Corps.

Soon after arriving at boot camp, "Swoff" is offered the opportunity to become a scout sniper by Staff Sergeant Siek, played intensely by Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx. Longing for years to become a soldier after listening to his father's Vietnam tales, Swoff becomes a "Jarhead," which is the self-deprecating nickname Marines call each other.

As the film progresses, Marines are sent into Kuwait to help in what will soon become the first Gulf War. Swoff and the seven other men under Sgt. Siek are among the first 5,000 troops loaded into the dry desert. In this harsh environment, the Marines must cope with being far away from their homes and loved ones.

The arriving airplanes announce the beginning of Operation Desert Storm and troops are deployed. The fledgling snipers await the chance to get that elusive first kill as the unit wanders the land in search of the enemy. In the process, they see the desert become a war zone.

Given the current political climate, it is impossible to watch Jarhead without thinking of the latest Iraqi operation. It is clear, however, that this movie makes no attempt to play politics-Jarhead is about one young man's experience. It is put perfectly by Troy, Swoff's partner in field sniping, portrayed by Peter Saarsgard, when one Marine tries to discuss the politics of the war: "F--k politics. We're here. All the rest is bullshit."

Because Swoff goes through so many different emotions, this is the perfect role for Gyllenhaal to show his acting skills. The character often seems disconnected from everything around him, playing to his interest in existentialist reading. But, he is also intensely violent at times, taking out his anger on those around him. Certain twists allow Gyllenhaal to show the audience that Swoff is a real person rather than a Hollywood-created character.

According to his journal on the movie's official Web site, the real Swofford felt Gyllenhaal could "capture the controversial bloodlust of and existential angst of the young jarhead going to war." Swoff undergoes a rather large transformation in the movie and the audience experiences every twinge of fear and ounce of pain through Gyllenhaal's performance.

But, he is not alone in great acting ability. The subject matter and talent create an opportunity for both Foxx and Gyllenhaal to make a run at the Academy Awards.

Also playing a strong part is Sarsgaard as Troy, whose detachment is displayed perfectly by the actor. Cameos from Dennis Haysbert and Chris Cooper spice up the already talented cast even more.

Director Sam Mendes is charged with keeping the audience interested in a story about a war that did not see a great deal of action, and this is reflected in the film. It drags at times, but overall, Mendes shows his power by keeping the audience interested in what could be a dull landscape by showing it as both a homey camp and a fiery, oily hell.

Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13, Cast Away) also does a magnificent job, taking the serious topic of war and splicing in humor to keep the audience entertained. Broyles fought in Vietnam and later wrote a book, Brother In Arms, about his return to the country. His personal experiences come through and help him to bring a truthful and realistic perspective to the script.

Broyles is unafraid to show every side of the Jarhead's life, such as dealing with death, punishment, fun and even the intense events that happen behind bathroom walls.

It certainly feels that with the recent war in Iraq, this movie needed to be made. While it might not deserve a medal of honor, Jarhead is a powerful piece of cinematic art.

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