‘Jarhead’ a good war film without combat

Melissa Treolo

In the film, “Jarhead,” Marine Anthony Swofford heads off to the Gulf War with all the excitement of a child opening a birthday present. He soon learns, however, that the realities of war are quite different from what he expected.

“Jarhead” is based on Swofford’s gripping novel of the same name, a true-to-life account of his days as a sniper in Operation Desert Storm. The film opens with a bang, literally, as Swofford’s head is banged into a chalkboard by the staff sergeant who is yelling orders at him.

This is before the desert, when he is still a young man in training. Swofford, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is portrayed as a man who reads Camus on the toilet and has sex with his girlfriend on leave. He is a man who is disciplined but a little gullible. One scene shows Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) asking him to play the trumpet in a Marine band. Swofford falls for the joke and shows up the next day only to be put in his place by Sykes with orders of many push-ups and a vocalized trumpet performance.

The antithesis of Swofford is Troy (Peter Sarsgaard). Troy is quiet where Swofford is loud. Troy is completely dedicated to being a sniper whereas Swofford is just there to do his job and get out. The two form a close bond throughout the film, with the clear differences between them being shown in one of the final scenes. Here the two men finally have a chance to kill someone for the first time. As they are given the order to fire, Swofford’s finger hesitates on the trigger while Troy urges him on in clear bloodlust. When they are given the order to cease fire, Swofford’s relief is palpable while Troy breaks down in tears over the disappointment.

“Jarhead,” while based on the early 90’s conflict in Iraq, is really about Swofford and about the humorous, and often disturbing things that happened while he was in Operation Desert Storm. There are no scenes of actual combat in this film. The subject is the passing of time and the war is just a side note. Scenes of the men playing full-garbed football in 112 degree heat and throwing a Christmas party in the middle of a stark desert is where the real story lies.

This is an innovative, and very effective, approach to a war film. A poetic voice-over taken from the book and a strong performance by Gyllenhaal makes it easy to really see through Swofford’s eyes as he goes through the motions of what war is all about: fear, loss and trying to have a little fun in even the worst situations.

“Jarhead” is well worth a viewing and, with a cast and crew that includes Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and Chris Cooper (Adaptation), it may well be fodder for at least a few Oscar nominations.