After a summer full of popcorn flicks – chock full of sound effects and massive explosions – and fall’s slate of mediocre films, the time has finally come. As fall transitions into winter, studios will begin rolling out the big guns to compete for Oscar gold in March. This month, one of the first releases with that gold in mind is “Jarhead,” a candid look at the first Gulf War in the early ’90s.
“Jarhead” is directed by Sam Mendes, who is helming just his third feature film. His first two outings weren’t too shabby, though. Two of Mendes’ films, 1999’s “American Beauty” and 2002’s “Road to Perdition” garnered a total of 14 Academy Award nominations and six wins. Not bad for a beginner.
Here, Mendes gets it right again, bringing a visually stunning and genuine story to the screen. “Jarhead” succeeds because it’s a different kind of war movie. It’s not about what happened in the Gulf War, but rather what didn’t happen. It’s about training and conditioning for an event that turns out to be completely different from what you imagined it would be.
The screenplay for the film was adapted from Anthony Swofford’s memoir of the same name. Swofford spent several months in Iraq during the war as a Marine sniper. The book and the movie recount his experiences from boot camp to Iraq and back again. Although this film adaptation can be a little long-winded at times, it still manages to work on several different levels. It’s not action-packed, but that’s the point.
During their stint in Iraq, Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his fellow troops are eager and ready to fight. Inside, though, they’re shaking. They’re scared of the bombs, the nerve gas and of an untimely death. It’s a sharp contrast, and each soldier handles it in his own way. They must all find ways to pass the time in the desert as they wait for the ground war to begin. These scenes are really the heart of the film.
The soldiers do everything you’d expect a soldier in waiting to do. They train, play football, think about home, masturbate and talk about all the killing that’s going to happen. But when it doesn’t happen, frustration sets in. All the months of training begin to form an itch that they can’t scratch. In one emotional scene, Swofford becomes so disillusioned that he threatens to shoot his own friend before finally breaking down.
“Jarhead” is billed as a drama, but it actually comes off as a comedy for its first two-thirds. No matter what the intention, it works either way. There are a lot of truly funny moments in this film as the soldiers interact, but these moments are smartly crossed with some poignant, moving material. To say that Swofford’s experiences were memorable ones is certainly an understatement.
Gyllenhaal is excellent in the title role. He’s showed before that he’s a budding star, but his turn here – along with his much-anticipated work alongside Heath Ledger in the upcoming “Brokeback Mountain” – should establish him as a bankable leading man for a long time.
As Staff Sgt. Sykes, Jamie Foxx proves that his success last year with “Ray” was no fluke. Sure, he’ll give you “Stealth” every now and then, but given the right direction and a decent screenplay, Foxx is capable of turning in a fantastic performance. An Oscar nomination for supporting actor isn’t out of the question.
One surefire lock for “Jarhead” at the Oscars is in the cinematography category. Mendes has a knack for providing stunning visuals and his previous two films have both won the Oscar for cinematography. Although his previous cinematographer, Conrad Hall, has passed away since “Road to Perdition,” Mendes was able to fill the void with Roger Deakins. A veteran cinematographer, Deakins has five Oscar nominations to his own credit.
Now, hopefully, he can make it six. From the staggering sight of the burning oil fields in Kuwait, to the sharp contrast between boot camp and the Iraqi desert, Mendes and Deakins have collaborated to shoot a visual masterpiece. Every scene here is breathtaking.
Combine those visuals with a solid screenplay, top-notch directing and a terrific ensemble cast and you have the first great film of the second half of 2005. Congratulations to Sam Mendes for making it three for three.