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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, September 25, 2023

In between hazing, a boring life on the battlefield

"Jarhead" is a pretty accurate representation of war - that is, except for the fact that there is no war in the movie.

This may be a major flaw in the film's mass appeal, but ultimately, the lack of combat sequences only strengthens the movie's thematic objectives.

We first see Anthony "Swoff" Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) enlisting into the Marine Corps. Right from the beginning, the style of the film is a bit uninviting. It almost feels like the party has already started and you're showing up an hour late. The concise cuts between scenes and terse dialogue in these first boot camp portrayals set the backdrop for Swofford's engagement in Operation Desert Shield as a Marine sniper.

The embarrassing but staunchly traditional hazing rituals begin quickly. Swoff's initiation into the Marines comes in the form of being held down by six of his bunk mates and branded with the Corps' initials, or at least, that's what he thinks is happening. Swoff passes out before the branding iron can hit his exposed flesh, and when he wakes up later, sans burn mark, his antagonistic and soon-to-be shooting partner Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) informs him that it was just a little "f-k-f-k trick" they play on the new recruits.

This brutal scenario is just one of many disturbing moments in "Jarhead" that are often ironically juxtaposed with equally humorous or heartfelt scenes. Director Sam Mendes, best known for 1999's "American Beauty," has achieved an amazingly realistic portrayal of Marines' lives, or at least more realistic than any other past interpretation of the war genre.

"Jarhead," based on the real Swofford's best selling autobiography of the same name, follows the author through battles both interpersonal and otherwise; noticeably absent from the film is much actual warfare - Swofford and his platoon never engage in actual combat. There are scenes of the platoon's encampment being bombed, but nothing more. Yet despite this lack of conventional action, "Jarhead" still packs a heavy emotional punch.

One intense scene involves Troy and Swofford arguing with one of their superior officers over getting a "kill." After weeks of inaction and boredom in the desert, Troy breaks down when their superior denies them the right to take down an Iraqi official. The visceral scene follows another emotionally intense sequence in which Swofford, suffering similar mental strain, holds a gun to one of his fellow platoon members for a minor offense.

That said, never during the film do we feel out of touch with what is taking place onscreen. In fact, in the two aforementioned scenes the close viewer-character kinship born of the strong writing and directing make the scenes especially harrowing.

First-rate acting also helps to draw the audience into the film. One of the movie's most poignant scenes takes place back in the United States after the war. A Vietnam vet boards the bus that Swoff's platoon is riding through a town amidst cheers and "Welcome Back!" signs. The veteran is distraught and almost unintelligible. The look on Gyllenhaal's face is a prime example of his wonderful performance in the film, conveying his own fears of ending up like this ignored and addled veteran.

Of course, Jamie Foxx and Sarsgaard carry their own weight. Saarsgard is fantastic as Troy, as is Foxx as the demanding Platoon Sergeant Sykes. Never too friendly nor too distant, Foxx gives a pitch-perfect performance as the subtly warm commander.

These acting feats aren't the only stunning aspects of "Jarhead"; the cinematography is also amazing. As the platoon travels through a rainstorm of oil, the flaming wells in the background burn brightly. The desert visuals are excellent but never overdone.

Overall, the film focuses on its characters not only through the script but also the visual style. Never do we see shots of "back home" or the actual frontlines of the war. Instead, the film stays with the troops in no man's land.

"Jarhead" may not be for everyone. Looking for brutal war scenes? Steer clear. Interested in seeing a politically charged film? This is not for you.

However, if you are looking for a film that dissects troops' day-to-day lives, then this may be just the ticket. "Jarhead" is appealing in its characters, dry script, and stunning visuals. Unless a big, mindless action film is what they went in there searching for in the first place, few patrons will leave the theater feeling robbed.