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Sunday, January 22, 2006 

Review: Jarhead

Receiving mixed reviews at best, I went into Jarhead with relatively low expectations. Most of which were met. The all-too-timely story of Anthony Swofford's misadventures during the First Gulf War is charming and largely inoffensive; but ultimately falls short when trying to reach some deeper level. My qualms with Jarhead stem not from its inaction but rather its apparent lack of plot: Swoff's story is far too easy to disregard, and as a protagonist he fails to fully engage. By the start of the movie, he's just as jaded to war as we are.

Jarhead doesn't recall the subtlety of Sam Mendes' previous works and instead comes off too caught up in its own politics, or at least in its desire to foreshadow today's trouble in Iraq. Visually it's a feast -Roger Deakins' staunch cinematography leading the way- but this doesn't go a long way in adding weight to an already flimsy story. You can't help but feel manipulated throughout, (especially when the movie radically switches gears about half-way through) and this is best expressed with a shockingly heavy-handed and unnecessary coda, which plays out like 'What the Marines Did Next', eliciting no remorse or sincerity for our Jarheads probably because we never got to know them in the first place.

Don't get me wrong, Jarhead is not a bad movie (far from it) but it's too easy to see the cracks in the plotting. We should be seeing character through actions and not words, and because we're denied this the film plays out like a whimsical stroll through the desert with the occasional glare of flourish. It's hard to absorb Jarhead on a superficial level but this is where it works best, not when bungled between getting to know Jake Gyllenhaal or making a political statement. If you want a contemporary war picture that pushes all the right buttons, go for Three Kings.

Still, there's much to cherish here, if only for the film's terrific sense of humour. We get star turns, too, from Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Lucas Black and Dennis Haysbert -each enthusing their characters with genuine personas despite their screen time. Gyllenhaal as Swoff has this acting lark down pat by now, and while the character doesn't really seem to go on any kind of emotional journey on-screen his laconic voiceover goes a long way in adding depth. I could only outrightly pick fault with Peter Sarsgaard. Although he seemed more awake than usual, whenever he had an emotional outburst it felt false and out of place, coming off like a crap John Malkovich impression.

The film may stumble in some departments and suffer from pacing problems, but on the whole Jarhead is a diverting and encouraging way to spend two hours. And while it doesn't possess the grandiose of Apocalypse Now, the heart of Platoon, and the grace of Saving Private Ryan this isn't necessarily a bad thing. As Swoff remarks, "Every war is different, every war is the same." and Jarhead is gloriously care-free in its experimentation. It's something of a shame, then, that in the end it fails to muster as much excitement as it deserves.

Verdict: 7/10

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