This is Vietnam music. Can’t we get our own music?” yells Anthony ‘Swoff’ Swofford, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, over the blare of the Doors’ “Break on Through.”
In Sam Mendes’ new film “Jarhead,” the comparisons to Vietnam are endless. References to “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now” pepper the film, including a great scene where the troops pump themselves up for battle by cheering and laughing as Robert Duvall’s choppers decimate a Vietnamese village to “Ride of the Valkyries.”
Like the soldiers in those two films, the troops of “Jarhead” struggle to maintain their sanity. Unlike other war movies, this one only has scattered instances of combat. As the troops wander aimlessly through the desert protecting the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, it becomes more and more obvious that this battle is no Vietnam.
Swoff is a third-generation enlistee who finds himself stuck in the desert heat with nothing to do, geared up for a conflict he doesn’t really understand against an enemy he hardly ever sees. The first half follows him through military training as he excels as a sniper. There, he meets his superior Sgt. Siek, played convincingly by Jamie Foxx.
Siek, unlike Swoff, lives for battle and lives for the Marines. Foxx does an excellent job balancing a man that is torn between being a superior and a friend to the soldiers under him. In one powerful scene, he tells Swoff of his devotion to the Marines, asking him if he feels the same. Swoff reluctantly nods his head yes. Therein lies the conflict of “Jarhead.”
The film doesn’t have much of a plot. Like “Full Metal Jacket” — to which it will undoubtedly be compared — it is 100 percent character-driven. Thankfully, Swoff’s unit is filled with a variety of characters, all with diverse attitudes toward the war. The supporting cast is a list of the next generation of fine actors. Each one perfectly fits their role, most noticeably Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Troy, Swoff’s best friend and antithesis. Unlike Swoff, Troy seems not to care why they are there, only that they are and that he’s ready to fight. But Sarsgaard’s character is often complex and difficult to figure out. He, along with Gyllanhaal and Foxx, keep the film interesting despite a very small amount of action.
At one point in the film, soldiers stand around debating the reasons for the war until Troy ends the conversation by saying, “To hell with politics. We’re here now.” To some extent, this is the rest of the movie’s take on the underlying politics that creep up every so often. Though the writer and director are at times clearly trying to draw parallels between the movie’s Operation Desert Storm and the current war in Iraq, “Jarhead” isn’t overly political — though it may still be controversial.
Based on the memories of Anthony Swofford, “Jarhead” illustrates the division of attitudes toward the Marine Corps, even from those within it. Many Marines, especially those who fought in Desert Storm, may very well despise the character’s total disregard for their actions in the war. But “Jarhead” is an intense personal story based on the experiences of a man that lived through it. It can’t easily be discarded as simply another anti-war tool.
Mendes, director of “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition,” continues to impress by showing his affinity for bright, vivid color, even in the completely monochromatic desert. With the fine acting and high amounts of humor, “Jarhead” is able to succeed despite a slow pace and the usual war film cliches.