Jarhead tells the fictionalized story of Anthony Swofford, a new Marine who becomes a sniper. Not long after he finishes basic training, Saddam Huessain sends Iraqi troops to occupy Kuwait, the United States responds, and Swofford and his fellow Marines are going to war. From there, we get a glimpse of Swofford's experience in Iraq, which is less than thrilling, to say the least.
Now, by that I mean not much happens over the course of the film in the way of battle action. In fact, Swofford doesn't even get the chance to fire his gun until the last half hour. But that's more or less the point of the film: the First Gulf War went by so quickly and was so decisive that there was little glory to be had as an individual soldier. There's an old saying that goes, "War is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror." And this is true of Swofford's experience: most of his time is spent walking around the desert or sitting around camp. The emotional toil this takes on him and his fellow Marines, though, is what keeps the viewer focused: while they're out in the desert, their lives back home are carrying on and changing. The boredom also gets to them, making Jarhead an interesting psychological examination of the soldiers.
Working from a script by William Broyles, Jr. (adapted from Swofford's memoir), director Sam Mendes treats these soldiers the same way he treated the Burnhams in American Beauty, slowly opening them up and exposing the messy, complicated humans that they are. Visually, the film is a work of beauty, from the washed-out shots of the desert to some spectacular scenes involving the burning oil fields. Mendes doesn't skimp on the violence the war has caused, but he also uses it to an interesting effect: since Swofford and Co. aren't seeing any action, when they come across dead bodies or a bombed-out section of highway, they're not just repulsed by what they see; they're almost jealous of it. Mendes has proven himself again and again to be a fascinating director, and this film is no exception.
Performance-wise, Gyllenhaal does fine work as Swofford, and Jamie Foxx as Staff Sgt. Sykes gets a few great scenes. Dennis Haysbert steals both scenes he's in, playing Major Lincoln as a terrific asshole. But its Peter Sarsgaard, as Swofford's partner Alan Troy, who really gets to shine here. Over the course of the film, he's the very definition of pent-up masculinity, but when he finally breaks down, its a deeply emotional, rewarding moment.
Is Jarhead necessarily a classic war movie? Not really, but as far as capturing the experience of soldiers in the Gulf War, its hard to beat.