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"Jarhead" - Muddled Marine Drama Says Little

"Jarhead" - Muddled Marine Drama Says Little

Release Date: November 4, 2005
Rating:  R (pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content)
Genre:  War
Run Time:  101 min.
Director: Sam Mendes
Actors: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black, Chris Cooper

Every generation needs its own war movie. "Jarhead," a muddled effort set during the first Gulf War, might do the trick for the Generation-Y crowd, but anyone familiar with the genre is more likely to come away thinking about earlier, better entries.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Anthony “Swof” Swofford (author of the book on which the film’s screenplay is based), a Camus-loving Marine at Camp Pendleton who toughens into a trained sniper under the guiding hand of Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx). Sent to the deserts of Kuwait to protect oil fields, Swof awaits an encounter with the Iraqi enemy – rumored to be an overpowering, lethal fighting force.

The rigors of boot camp forge deep bonds among the men, especially between Swof and Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), but the soldiers grow restless while they await combat, relieving their tension through taunts, parties and sexual self-gratification. Ordered to toe the official U.S. line on the war, they provide canned sound bites for the TV journalists assigned to report on the troop's morale.

As tensions between the United States and Saddam Hussein escalate, the Marines begin to complain loudly about faulty equipment, but these outcries are tempered somewhat by the dawning, depressing realization that air power and long-range weaponry have made the men’s breed of foot soldier less integral – if not obsolete – to the war effort. Swof’s thirst for a human kill grows more desperate after the men discover charred human remains in the desert – further signs that their chance of encountering a living enemy is slipping away – until Swof and Troy are given a final chance to use their sniper skills.

The first Gulf War is a political hot potato, with lessons for our current conflict in the Middle East, but "Jarhead"’s efforts to paint the Gulf War as a disproportionate response to a mostly phantom enemy fails to gin up much anti-war sentiment. Even if such a reading of the film is amiss – and part of the film’s problem is that it wants to be all things to all audiences, both anti-war and pro-military – the more important point is that it fails to generate much interest of any sort. Jarhead excels in its depiction of boot camp life, but after shifting away from these early episodes (about 20 minutes into the feature) it loses steam, growing less interesting when it should be drawing viewers into the story.

The film also fails to delve into the politics behind our current war efforts in the region. Instead, Jarhead is more interested in the interior lives of men at war, particularly their sexual fantasies – and jealousies. Viewers are given little information about Swof’s reasons for entering the military or about his life back in the States, other than an explicit flashback of Swof and his girlfriend engaged in sexual intercourse. This relational aspect of the soldiers’ life defines the men, who fill each other’s heads with suspicious thoughts about those they left behind. A “wall of shame” at the camp comprises the photos and letters of women who have dumped their soldier boyfriends, but Swof clings to diminishing hopes that his girlfriend will remain faithful to him in his absence.

Although the U.S. military is a noble institution, and our soldiers command respect for serving their country, the language and customs of military life displayed in Jarhead are not easy to swallow from a Christian perspective. The tough talk is so explicit and so profane, it’s difficult to contextualize, much less excuse. Nor are the hazing rituals Swof undergoes within the bounds of acceptability.

For those reasons alone, "Jarhead" would be difficult to recommend, but because the film offers little else to set itself apart from superior films about wartime malaise and political incoherence ("Full Metal Jacket" is one obvious example), it’s an easy call. The film’s only contribution to the genre is evermore explicit violence, language, and sexuality – elements that are, sadly, far too common in the most frivolous fare today. The serious, timely subject of our military’s efforts against Iraq deserves a better movie than "Jarhead."



  • Language/Profanity:  Lots of it, and very graphic. Note the “Rating” explanation at the top of this review, which describes the film’s harsh language as “pervasive.” Particularly offensive are a soldier’s recitation of the sixth commandment, followed by his declaration, “F--- that sh--,” and one soldier’s description of U.S. forces as “the righteous f---ing hand of God”; a soldier also says, “Thank you, Jesus,” for the opportunity to shoot the enemy
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Swof smokes; the soldiers drink and smoke while partying
  • Sex/Nudity:  Simulated homosexual intercourse; masturbation; men urinate in the open; frontal nudity (obscured) of men showering, but backsides are shown; a man and his girlfriend have sex, and the man’s backside is displayed; the men gather to watch a movie that turns out to be a homemade sex tape of one soldier’s wife engaging in sex with another man
  • Violence:  Swof is hazed by his fellow soldiers, beaten, tied to a bed and threatened with being branded by a hot iron; a soldier is shot in the head and killed during a training exercise; military snipers practice loading their guns and discharging them; a photograph shows the effects of nerve gas on a young boy; the soldiers organize scorpion fights; vomiting; a soldier threatens another at gunpoint, then turns the gun on himself, threatening suicide; a soldier is branded with a hot iron; a friendly fire incident; burning bodies jump from military vehicles; charred human remains; a building with soldiers in it is bombed; a man is displayed in a coffin