The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Jarhead

Reviewed by James MacDowell.

Director Sam Mendes
Length 125 mins
Certificate 15
Rating *******---
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article Jarhead comes with a lot of expectations: it is based on a largely universally praised book, stars men-of-the-moment Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx, and is directed by Mendes - who may have let himself down with the stylish exercise that was Road to Perdition (2002), but is still the director of the critically and commercially deified American Beauty (1999). Even more than this though, the film carries the huge pressure of being potentially significant: one of its trailers even tells us: “For every generation there is a war movie…”

There is much to be impressed by: Jake Gyllenhaal increases the sense that he is fast becoming a potential De Niro for a new generation, Coens-regular cinematographer Roger Deakins has crafted some disarmingly beautiful visuals of the Iraqi desert, and veteran editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now [1979]) delivers some of the best cut footage I have seen in some time. Mendes’ love of lyrical, nearly-symbolic, visual set pieces also finds a few particularly striking outlets, making us glad that someone with an understanding of stillness is directing a war film for once.

Indeed, stillness and inactivity are the driving factors in the film, for this is a war movie unlike any other in the sense that it shows us very little of actual combat. But then of course, the first Gulf War was a war unlike any other - a war in which the US forces’ use of modern technology basically eradicated their need for soldiers. Yet the soldiers were still there nonetheless, training, arguing, sleeping, drinking, masturbating, going insane. Thus instead of ‘war is Hell’, we are told in Jarhead, ‘waiting for war is Hell’, the group of marines we are following almost visibly bursting at the seams with the pent-up aggression that has been drilled into them.

The film has been criticised for being apolitical, and, while this is not exactly true, this is certainly not a film with one definitive statement to make. Instead it is a patchwork piece, made up of little observations, occasional satirical side-swipes, moments of introspection, moments of comedy, moments of suspense, moments of boredom: in other words, it simply attempts to capture life inside the minds of its isolated young men.

In this sense, the film is largely successful. In particular it is bluntly honest about the way these boys (and, perhaps more than any other war film, these soldiers do seem like boys) think and interact, both in times of flag-waving patriotism and at moments when their belief in the war is shaken. When stepping outside the characters’ psyches and contemplating the action Jarhead is less convincing. We never forget that the source novel was written by a first-hand witness, not a commentator - and Mendes is not natural satirist enough to consistently raise individual experience into meaningful observation.

So finally, no, Jarhead does not feel as passionate or as significant as it could have - it is not a towering achievement, and it will not be remembered as one of the great war movies. Yet it is also unique, and - in its own cool way - manages to vocalise and show some interesting thoughts and images that we will not see anywhere else - even if they are expressed in a less vital package than they could have been.

This review was published on January 25, 2006.

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