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Film Review **1/2: ‘Jarhead’ an Empty Narrative That Cries for Depth

Story Based on Novel of the Same Title Tells of One Man’s Recollections of War in Kuwait

By Kapil Amarnath


Directed by Sam Mendes

Screenplay by William Broyles Jr.

Based on the book by Anthony Swofford

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx

Universal Pictures

Rated R

Opens Today

At the beginning of “Jarhead,” the main character sits on the toilet, Camus’ “The Stranger” in one hand, a bottle of laxative in the other. By the end, he’s sitting in an apartment with The New Yorker on a table, looking out a window. He’s fought in the Gulf War, and he’s woken up to the world. But as in any young person’s journey, his eyes open up to the realities around him. “Jarhead,” though entertaining, fails to capture complex changes in its main character, and, as a result, falls short of the high expectations thrust upon it from its inception.

The son of a soldier who fought in Vietnam, “Swoff” (Jake Gyllenhaal) feels the obligation to join the Marines in 1989. He trains to be a scout sniper under Scout Sergeant Siek (Jamie Foxx) and meets Troy (Peter Sarsgaard). Then the Gulf War begins, and he has to serve in Kuwait. While there, far away from home and his girlfriend, Swoff begins to go crazy with boredom, until he is finally called to fight.

Sam Mendes, the Oscar winning director of “American Beauty” and mobster movie “Road to Perdition,” adds to the diversity of his filmography with this thought provoking movie. He complements his bold direction with references to other films. When Swoff begins to go crazy, Mendes includes a shot of a showerhead, a la “Psycho.” Later in the film, he uses the great anthem from “Do the Right Thing,” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Mendes is able to capture the essence of several moments in the film.

Gyllenhaal, who will also appear in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” does a good job portraying Swoff’s desperation while waiting to fight, and Jamie Foxx does an excellent job creating a unique character. Peter Sarsgaard’s Troy is a complex character, and the movie might have been a lot more interesting if he was the central character.

“Jarhead,” like many other films that will appear this Oscar season, is based on a book — Anthony Swofford’s memoirs of the same name. In this case, the source material was perhaps not conducive to a conversion to film. The film tries to maintain a surreal edge but ends up being a checklist about the problems of war in the Middle East. The language barrier. Check. Lack of appropriate equipment. Check. Media-driven war. Check. Boredom. Check. Further, “Jarhead” lacks the development in its main character that it needs to make up for the lack of action. As a result, when the final credits rolled, I wished I could’ve been with the narrator just a little bit longer.

At first glance, “Jarhead” has everything in order to win all the year-end awards: a great cast, director, and technical specialists. But all the parts simply don’t congeal to make a great movie. If you’re looking for a decent flick, “Jarhead” can be that. But if you’re looking for a really good movie on the Gulf War, rent “Three Kings.”