The opening passage of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan may be the most vividly realistic modern war movie ever made. The denouement of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket may be the most profoundly metaphoric. Everything else falls somewhere in between, often very close to these two bookends, which frame the genre in an era of cinema with license to portray war as something less than heroic.
In Jarhead, directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), we live the true story of Pvt. Anthony "Swoff" Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), a 20-year-old college lad who reads Camus and joins the Marines, presumably because his father served well in Vietnam, and who, when he returned home, wrote a book about his time in Kuwait during the first Gulf War. His story, at least as filmed by Mendes, teaches us nothing new, but it does confirm that Kubrick, Malick, Coppola and Stone got it right in their movies -- or at least, right enough to be worth ripping off.
Considering that we witness no battle casualties in Jarhead, and that nobody shoots at anything but a target, I have to assume it's all true. Who'd make a war movie like this otherwise? Its first half is a riff on Full Metal Jacket, including an attempt at sardonic narration. (The boot camp stuff is Kubrick's Vietnam, just with different music.) The rest is a pastiche of its predecessors, with periodic emphasis on a different sort of tragedy: A few of the buddies who serve in Swoff's elite (and bored) sniper unit learn that their women back home have been unfaithful. This makes some of them almost cry.
If Jarhead leaves an impression, it's because Mendes owes more to his production designer, Dennis Gassner, and his cinematographer, Roger Deakins -- two of the industry's best -- than he does to William Broyles Jr.'s screenplay, which I gather is thin by design, choosing (wrongly) to create only ciphers and clichés. Jamie Foxx is the raffish sergeant who loves his job, and Peter Sarsgaard is the only interesting character, an unusually gentle and introspective fellow who learns that he'll be drummed out of the Marines when he gets home for not disclosing a criminal record. He gets his big breakdown scene when he's denied the opportunity to kill just one Iraqi, who's going to die in air attack anyway.
Jarhead includes some brief discussions about oil wars or free speech or signing waivers before talking experimental anti-poison-gas pills. But Mendes seems determined not to emphasize such things, or else he just wants it all to be as loud as a whisper. He was a theater director before he made films, and it shows here again, as in his Road to Perdition: On a big canvas, he loses his dramatic focus. Gyllenhaal's Swoff is more of a wry observer than a bookish nerd, and Broyles does a flimsy job of charting his growth into Vincent D'Onofrio Lite.
Jarhead gets slightly better when it trades in the peculiarities of this particular war. As the oilfields burn from Saddam's sabotage, a black mist covers the men, burning their eyes. On a night aglow with the fires, an oil-soaked horse emerges from the blackness, and Swoff calms it for a moment before it ambles away. When someone plays The Doors, Swoff remarks, "That's Vietnam music. We want our own fucking songs."
Mendes paces his movie quickly, so we have no time to register just how little there is contemplate. In that regard it's like Three Kings, only much less self-conscious and thematically blunt. In fact, Jarhead isn't anti-war, nor is it pro-war. It's just about what happened to these guys, and it honors their service without disparaging their mission. In other words, it's a Democratic stump speech, and we all know how effective and compelling those are lately.
By the middle of Jarhead, I began to grow irritated at having my time wasted. "Every war is different, and every war is the same," Swoff tells us during the drama's coda, just in case we didn't get it, or didn't already know. So, apparently, is every war movie. Will there ever be another great one? Certainly someone will try. And if he succeeds, which will it be about: a war we've already fought, or one of the wars yet to come?