(director: Sam Mendes; screenwriters: William Broyles Jr./based on the book by Anthony Swofford; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editor: Walter Murch; music: Thomas Newman; cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (Tony “Swoff” Swofford), Peter Sarsgaard (Troy), Lucas Black (Kruger), Brian Geraghty (Fergus), Jacob Vargas (Cortez), Laz Alonso (Escobar), Evan Jones (Fowler), Ivan Fenyo (Pinko), Chris Cooper (Lt. Col. Kazinski), Dennis Haysbert (Major Lincoln), Scott MacDonald (D.I. Fitch), Jamie Foxx (Staff Sgt. Sykes), Kareem Grimes (Welty), Peter Gail (Doc John), Jamie Martz (Foster), Jocko Sims (Julius); Runtime: 123; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Lucy Fisher/Douglas Wick; Universal; 2005)

“Too heavy-handed, muddled, and simplistic to completely succeed as either drama or in its anti-war message.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”/”Road to Perdition”) awkwardly directs a war film about the absurdity of the first Gulf War, which is linked to the absurdity of all wars. Mendes keeps everything apolitical, so if the soldiers are acting up it’s hard to determine their reasons. It’s based on the 2003 best-selling memoir by Anthony Swofford, the disillusioned marine whose tale the film chronicles; the screenplay is by William Broyles Jr. (a former Vietnam pilot and Newsweek editor). It never satisfies in getting across its anti-war ideas with any clarity, and though trying hard to be edgy never really succeeds in being anything but surreal at times. Too heavy-handed, muddled, and simplistic to completely succeed as either drama or in its anti-war message, yet in its crass depiction of a marine’s life it provides the viewer some glimpses at how the soldier is dehumanized and turned into a killing machine in today’s all-volunteer army (though many other war films did it much better). In its episodic depiction of a number of inhumane incidents–from an insane boot camp drill instructor torturing a recruit to the recruits at a California base camp watching an American napalm air attack on a helpless Vietnam village in a sequence in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now at the onset of the Gulf War and thereby inspired with patriotic fervor to kill our new enemy the Iraqis to a football game by marines in full gear in the sweltering Kuwaiti desert to impress journalists about the latest in equipment while awaiting orders to attack–it somehow manages to make the popular war unappealing but it still glorifies it by its macho presentation of soldiering which could be either interpreted as satire or straightforward depending on one’s own viewpoint.

The film’s opening bully drill instructor scene is lifted straight from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The film’s hero, Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), called Swoff, is assigned as a scout sniper with his buddy Troy (Peter Sarsgaard). Swoff’s a sensitive type who joined the military instead of going to college (following the example of his Vietnam war serving father and his volunteer soldier grandfather). He soon discovers it was a big mistake when he joins his regular outfit and is held down by his new mates en masse as they pretend to brand him with a hot iron and tattoo him with “USMC” (United States Marine Corps), which is taken as an initiation rite into the unit. Every step of the marine’s trip into the military service and its looming war seems loaded down with insane situations and contrivances. Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), a tough man on the outside but with a surprising tenderness at times, dumps on Swoff’s reading of Camus’ The Stranger and plays a practical joke on him in front of the entire company. In the over 100-degree heat of the gulf desert as the war builds up, the bored marines practice rifle-cleaning, hydration and masturbation. There’s nothing to do but horse around and talk about all the girls they laid and how they can’t wait to get their first kill.

Everything seemed contrived, without real emotion, and based on showing outrageous scenes from the war front to shock our sensibilities. They include scenes of the Kuwaiti oil-fields going up in blazes, a drunken Christmas party ending in an accidental fireworks explosion, and the skinhead soldiers (called “jarheads” because they look as empty as those vessels) who vacuously amuse themselves over scorpion fights. The characters were too dumbly portrayed to be thought of as sympathetic (no character was fully developed or left a lasting impression), and for those expecting to see a pic with some combat, there’s the disappointment that the film offers none (which probably means hawks don’t get their blood as expected from the film’s trailers and doves walk away more confused about what all the nastiness means). What’s required is to sit through this jarring treatment of war as hell and supposedly you should come to the conclusion that Desert Storm was an unnecessary war and the second Gulf War was even more unnecessary. The problem is that everything was so cartoonish and not engaging, that one could justifiably come to the conclusion it was just another silly Hollywood anti-war film that might or might not mean what it says but, probably, its primary motive was getting a good box office (which, I might add, was not the author’s main motivation).

All the characters surrounding Swoff are the usual stock war figures (except there was no guy from Brooklyn). The grunts consist of a wise guy jokester from a small-town in Massachusetts (Evan Jones), a loud-mouth Texan (Lucas Black), a dworky white guy from Kansas (Brian Geraghty) and a pudgy Latino homebody proud of his pregnant wife back home in California (Jacob Vargas). The only interesting character is Troy, who lied about his criminal record to serve and that lie has been discovered. But his part was underwritten, so nothing comes of his tale. The main character Swoff, who feels he got a raw deal in his enlistment, somehow is too toned down for us to feel his pain or be overwhelmed with his tale of woe. The company commander is Lieutenant Colonel Kazinski (Chris Cooper), who pumps up his men with war fever and never allows for disagreement as he toys with the men as he uses military psychology 101 to keep them gung-ho about the mission in the desert.