Eschewing politics in favor of an intimate look at life in the Marine Corps during 1991’s Gulf War, Sam Mendes’ Jarhead (its title the moniker for marines, whose crew-cut heads resemble jars) functions primarily as a prolonged metaphor about suppressed sexual urges. Reluctantly entering the military because of his father’s distinguished service in Vietnam, Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) is dehumanized by his unrelentingly vicious boot camp training into a murderous automaton, programmed to spew Ooh-Rah Marine proverbs while blindly swearing allegiance to the Corps. Swofford and his varied sniper unit mates – including an ex-con (Peter Sarsgaard) who embraces the inclusive Corps for giving his life a purpose, a wise-ass (Lucas Black) who questions the justness of the campaign, and the sergeant (Jamie Foxx) who passionately loves his job – endure months of tedious, ennui-festering downtime in the Iraqi desert waiting for Operation Desert Storm to commence, partying when alcohol becomes available, insulting one another’s ethnicity and purported “gayness,” discussing the wives and girlfriends they believe are surely cheating on them, and masturbating like madmen.
This last activity is the one on which Mendes’ straightforwardly shot, not-quite-unreal-enough film is most fixated, as Swofford’s mushrooming mental breakdown – due to an explosive cocktail of boredom, fear and disgust with his transformation into a zealous, combat-obsessed grunt – is depicted as a case of brain-addling pent-up frustration from not being able to shoot off a few rounds from his phallic firearm. Such hackneyed symbolism (ripped right from Kubrick’s markedly more haunting Full Metal Jacket, as is the film’s opening drill sergeant scene) is what Mendes provides in place of character development, failing to get underneath the armor of the vacant Swofford or his equally blank comrades. Yet if his one-dimensional protagonists elicit little empathy, Mendes nonetheless effectively articulates Swofford’s contradictory attraction-repulsion impulses regarding the military’s gung-ho ethos through both a climactic shot of the marine, having been refused his ejaculatory battlefield release, watching carpet bombing through a closed window, as well as a languorous nightmare set to Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” – both instances in which lunacy and sanity are separated by nothing more than translucent glass.
What ultimately gets in the way of Mendes’ film, however, is a disinterest in engaging the larger geopolitical issues of its narrative and a miscalculated refusal to link (either overtly or covertly) his film’s decade-old operation against Saddam with today’s continuing debacle in Iraq. By not sufficiently commenting on any of the catalysts, methods or foreign policy legacies of the original Gulf War in favor of trite, tired critiques of military self-interest (such as Foxx’s sergeant forcing the men to demonstrate procedures for the visiting media) and inefficiency (Swofford’s sit-around-and-achieve-nothing plight being primary evidence of the armed forces’ wasteful incompetence), Jarhead feels painfully narrow in scope and, thus, pointless. Even more detrimental, though, are Mendes’ misfiring attempts to inject the proceedings with the surrealism of its oft-referenced predecessor Apocalypse Now (as well as Catch-22, M*A*S*H, and David O. Russell’s far superior Gulf War-set Three Kings), resulting in a film that only barely conveys wartime insanity and never comes close to expressing the insanity of war itself.