Jerk Off

The waiting game in Gulf War I

JARHEAD: Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by William Broyles, based on the book by Anthony Swofford. Produced by Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher. Executive producers Sam Mercer, Bobby Cohen. Cinematography, Roger Deakins. Production design, Dennis Gassner. Editor, Walter Murch. Costume design, Albert Wolsky. Music supervisor, Randall Poster. Music by Thomas Newman. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, with Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper, Jamie Foxx and Lucas Black. R. 123 minutes.

If you’ve ever wondered what goes through the mind of a young man sent to fight a ground war that never materializes, Anthony Swofford is here to tell you. Swofford was 18 when he signed up with the Marine Corps and just 20 when he was sent to the deserts of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as a member of an elite infantry corps to fight in the first Gulf War. In 2003, Swofford wrote a memoir titled Jarhead that told of his experiences in a bold, humorous style, which captured public attention and rose to the top of the best-seller list.

Now here’s Jarhead, the movie, directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and written by David Broyles, a founding editor of the progressive Texas Monthly magazine and a former Vietnam War fighter pilot. Starring the versatile Jake Gyllenhaal as Swofford, the film fills its supporting roles with great actors: Peter Sarsgaard as Troy, Chris Cooper as Lt. Col. Kazinski and Jamie Foxx as Staff Sgt. Sykes.

The film has an eerie beauty, captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins in the indelible moments when the desert grunts are sent to guard Kuwaiti oilfields that have been sabotaged and set afire. The night scenes are especially spectral as every surface becomes coated with oil, including a gorgeous, spooked horse that’s soaked to the bone.

Although the desert is a character in the film, with its daily flip-flop between freezing and boiling, the heart of the film is the discontent of soldiers who want the thrill of battle they’ve been promised and who can’t come down from a high stoked by the yen to kill. Jacked up on adrenaline, they cheer the “napalm in the morning” sequence from Apocalypse Now. But by the end of the film, when they have just returned to the U.S., they barely recognize a rugged, ragged Vietnam vet who boards their bus to proclaim his brotherhood with a fervent “Semper Fi.”

These boys never got their war. Their military experience was the boredom of waiting, marching in full gear, cleaning their weapons, jerking off, horsing around, fighting among themselves for alpha-male dominance, drinking whatever vile alcohol they could procure, worrying about their girlfriends or wives back in the states. Such activities were broken only intermittently by fear, anxiety and loneliness. Swoff’s unit was in country for five long months but never saw combat.

Jarhead emphatically does not romanticize war, nor is the film political in an ordinary sense. But it does captures the military arrogance and hubris of the time before the attacks of September 11, 2001. With hindsight, it’s reasonable to assume a connection between the U.S. military presence on the ground during the Gulf War and the strong anti-American sentiments that subsequently developed in the region. The countries of the Middle East don’t like armed foreigners on their land, then or now.

Gyllenhaal is the perfect actor to play this young man caught between adolescence and adulthood, who reads Camus sitting on the toilet yet dons a scanty Santa Claus outfit to drink himself into comic oblivion with his buddies.

Sarsgaard delivers another excellent performance as Swoff’s partner in the elite scout/sniper platoon, Troy. Here’s a man who loves the corps and wants to stay in. He’s a natural leader, cool under stress but conflicted with some terrible, private wound. We get Troy’s commitment.

Cooper turns Kazinski into a master of eloquent vernacular expression the men of the platoon can relate to. That they are being manipulated to want to kill is not an issue most examine. But Swoff does. He knows he’s being used, but he also gets caught up in the moment.

Foxx gives Staff Sgt. Sykes an ambivalent position with the men. He is the leader of the platoon in the field and a loyal Marine to his core, but he does not risk their lives needlessly. Sometimes a hands-on leader, Sykes removes any soldier out of line.

Now playing at Cinema World and Cinemark, Jarhead gets my highest recommendations for its personal picture of the Gulf War, one not shown on television.