I saw this movie with 5 friends. Three of them found it tedious and a huge bore. Myself and the other two, thought it was a superb film. Maybe it's the history of the war genre itself, the blood, guts and mayhem that we're so used to seeing in a war film, that led them to find this flick a snoozefest. I don't think the marketing campaign, the TV spots and trailers filled with the few minutes of actual "battle" footage, helped too much, probably giving my friends who disagree with me false expectations. But I thought it was brilliant, simply because this wasn't an ordinary war. Hell, it wasn't even called a war, it was a "conflict" and this "conflict" doesn't and can't call for the standard war flick, and that's exactly what was conveyed superbly here.
Jarhead, based on former Marine sniper Anthony Swofford's searing and phenomenal book, deals with Swofford (Gyllenhaal) joining the Marines just prior to Operation Desert Storm, then heading out to the desert to train hard for a war that was never what it was cracked up to be. I read Swofferd's book a few weeks ago, and I was amazed by Swofford's detail and candor, and showing us the other side of the "war" that we saw on CNN: 4 days of SCUDS, Patriot missiles, "friendly fire" and surrenders. He shows the soldier's side of the war, along with the boredom, fear and lunacy that the soldiers lived with.
What makes this movie so great is that it sticks to the book rather faithfully. Of course, you can't do a page-by-page flick with a 350-plus page book, so you have to, pun intended, pick your battles in choosing what material in the book you want to put on film. The material selected for the flick was either identical or damn close to what Swofford had written, and I'm glad they chose to do so, mainly because they could've easily added artificial battles and gore to spice the flick up and make it a starndard war fare. My only gripe about this movie was there were a few spots in the book that I felt were rife with possibilities for the movie, yet they didn't use. There is a lot of great material in the book from after they return stateside from the "conflict" and I think they needed these parts to show how the soldier is transformed when he returns from war. While I can agree, to a standpoint, that the movie was "boring" meaning there wasn't enough action, I think it would've been a waste to add artificial action to a movie about a war that, frankly, there just wasn't a whole lot of action, at least from a Marine's standpoint. It was honestly a boring war, lasting less than a week, even though Swofford and his mates were there for about 6 months, and to artificialize that would've been a shame. It really is probably the bravest flick of the year, making a war movie about probably the most hyped, but unfullfilling war, from a military standpoint, of all time. They stuck to their guns (or lack thereof) here, and I commend them for it.
Jake Gyllenhaal has been rising up the Hollywood spectrum in recent years, and his powerful performance here should make that stock rise even more. He gives a superb, emotionally tense performance here as Swofford, who transforms from reluctant jarhead in boot camp, after a number of embarrassing yet highly humorous incidents, to an eager sniper, waiting for that perfect kill shot. He shows off the range that he's hinted he's had for years, turning in a performance that perhaps could result in an Oscar nomination here. Peter Saarsgard could also easily be up for a little gold man after his remarkable performance as Alan Troy, Swofford's best buddy in "the Suck" (a moniker for the Marine Corps). But probably my favorite performance here comes from the man that Oscar shined on last year, Jamie Foxx. He is phenomenal as Staff Sgt. Sykes, a hardened jarhead lifer, in command of Swofford's STA (Sniper Target Acquisition) team. He's about as tough here as we've ever seen him on film, showing that bit of crazyness that apparently comes with the job, and the desire to remain in the Corps long-term. There is a fabulous scene here with Foxx and Gyllenhaal where they're sitting around a fire, Foxx just riffing about what he could be doing right now in the States, and why he's not doing it: he just loves The Suck.
The script by William Broyles Jr., who has a few blockbusters under his belt (See: Apollo 13, Planet of the Apes, Entrapment, The Polar Express) does a fabulous job with the script. While I would've liked to see more of the after-war stuff in the movie, he does a wonderful job in the desert, depicting the crazy jarheads, false fear and life in the desert remarkably well. The last few scenes of the "war" were exactly how I envisioned them when reading the book, and he did a great job there. There isn't a ton of character development here, but there isn't much in the book and he did a very nice job with the dialogue as well, incorporating stuff from the book with his own sharp lines as well.
Of all the possible Oscar nominations I've mentioned so far, I think the only surefire lock for an Oscar nom would be for director Sam Mendes. The amazing thing about that is, if he gets this nom, it will be his second directing nomination (he won the directing Oscar for Best Picture winner American Beauty)... and this is only the third film he's ever done! Mendes has surely proven, if not yet already, that he is one of the most talented helmers in the biz, picking his projects carefully and obviously not out to be a "blockbuster" director. While his work with his actors is smashing, his real talent is stunning visuals, working very closely with his cinematographers to achieve amazing shots for his flicks. His last two movies, American Beauty and Road to Perdition, both won Oscars for the late great cinematographer Conrad Hall. He keeps the ball rolling here, taking on 5-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, who could make it a sixth nomination for his astounding work here. Mendes is one of the best visually-oriented directors out there now, and he brings the best out of his actors as well. Every project Mendes signs on to, is looked at closely, and it should continue on after his amazing direction here.
Jarhead is a movie about modern war, and how it's more about confusion that it is about strategy. It's a marvelous, new take on the war genre, almost a Version 2.0 for the war genre. This isn't your father's war flick, folks. It's a new world, with new war that needs a new war movie. Jarhead is the first entry into that genre, and it's spectacular from both ends of the camera.