I can only imagine if Jarhead had been played like a standard action film. It would have put us through the rigors of training for war, and then it would have unleashed our invincible heroes upon the enemy forces. One of the comrades might have died or been gravely injured, but everyone else would persevere and, eventually, win the battle or war. Thankfully, Jarhead doesn’t play out this way.
Instead, it spends a great deal more time doing absolutely nothing, and it’s better for that. We begin with some narration from Tony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s about to go off to war, or maybe he already has and is telling us the story from some magical future bubble. He lectures about how the first time he reconsidered his decision to enlist was when he was picked on by his drill instructor. At this point, I couldn’t help but laugh.
I mentioned in the opening that even if Jarhead was like a generic action film, we’d have to see him go through training. We get that anyway. This film wants to present the audience with what it’s like to be in the marines, so it only makes sense to show all of the abuse (topped up to a comical level) that the lower class “jarheads” have to take from their higher-ups. For example, the first time Tony meets Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), he is made fun of in front of all the other wannabe Scout Snipers. Again, I had to laugh. There is enough humor in this film to keep the tone light.
However, after most of the training is done, we sit around for a lot of time, just waiting for something to happen. They wait for something like 200 days before any action occurs. In another voice-over, we get told exactly what the men are told to do in order to keep busy. I won’t repeat it all here, but for a lot of the time, you’re going to be spending it alone. You know, doing things like cleaning your rifle or doing things young men do when away from their significant others for any amount of time. (Obviously I mean getting together with other men and talking about the meaning of life.)
Eventually, explosions go off, guns are fired, and airplanes fly overhead. This is when Jarhead came off the rails for me. Before this, I was actually thinking that the characters would just be called home and would have undergone all of that training and wasted all of that time for nothing. “Well, we have to satisfy the audience somehow,” said the studio, “so let’s have explosions in the background and occasionally put the characters in slightly risky situations. That will work!”
So they did. But all this went to do was reinforce the point — or more correctly, the pointlessness — of the entire exercise. While I did kind of care about Gyllenhaal’s character, the rest of the cast mostly blends into the background. And they’re the ones that were more interesting. We get some time with them, just not enough to actually learn about them apart from basic personality tropes. There’s a man who just recently had a baby, one who is hiding his criminal record, another who is the most eccentric of the bunch — but we don’t get any depth about any of them.
What we get instead are scenes of Gyllenhaal sitting on the toilet, burning the excrement from the outhouses, moping around because his girlfriend may or may not be seeing other people. Basically anything that would be interesting gets put aside to focus on this one man. That could work, and Gyllenhaal gives a pretty strong performance, but it would have been nicer to build up an ensemble cast instead of having the main spotlight on the least interesting of the characters.
But maybe this was the point. If the main idea that the filmmakers wanted to get across was how the ground soldiers rarely get to see the “good stuff” in war, then it was made loud and clear. We want to learn about the other characters, but instead focus on the boring one, just like what all of the individuals feel. They all want to get out and kill some people, but they have to wait months before even getting the opportunity. Our pain mirrors theirs, or possibly theirs mirrors ours. Regardless, it makes for a disappointing, if enlightening, viewing experience.
The actors are all strong, even if we don’t get enough of any of them (apart from Gyllenhaal). Supporting our leading man is Peter Sarsgaard as his spotter and Jamie Foxx as his Staff Sergeant, while Lucas Black, Evan Jones, Brian Geraghty and John Krasinski play other men in the marines. Even Chris Cooper appears in a couple of scenes (he’s not a prominent player like the trailer would like you to think) where he gives the troops a “motivational” speech. We feel like we’re in the military as the film goes along, even if there isn’t a lot of shooting.
Jarhead is a good film when it’s not trying to dazzle us with spectacle. When it gives us some depth to the characters and wants us to feel what it’s like to be a soldier in the military taking part in any war, it works. When it wants to be an action film, it falls apart — even if some of the characters don’t even get to be involved in the action scenes. It fell apart near the end, although it still managed to be an enlightening piece that had some solid acting. I’ll give it a recommendation based on that alone, even if it does drag on for far too long (it should have been around 90 minutes, not pushing past 120).