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Wednesday, November 9, 2005

"Jarhead" Provides Jarring Look at War

4 out of 5 stars

"Jarhead," based on the acclaimed book by Anthony Swofford, provides a fresh and unsettling look at the first Gulf War, which was packaged so antiseptically by the armed forces and news media. The title refers to the nickname Marines give themselves because their newly shaven heads resemble jars.

We follow "Swoff," beautifully played by Jake Gyllenhaal ("Moonlight Mile," "Day After Tomorrow"), as a third-generation enlistee from boot camp to active duty as a sniper. We experience it all: the hazing by fellow troops, a friendly fire killing of a fellow trainee, Swoff's demotion for drinking on Christmas Eve, which led to a fire in the camp, and his punishment - burning the crap from the latrines.

Throughout, Gyllenhaal provides a voice-over check list for every detail of his hurry-up-and-wait life: "Things a marine needs to burn [the contents] of a latrine: five gallons of diesel, a long metal pole and an incendiary device."

The cast is rounded out by Peter Sarsgaard ("Flightplan," "Skeleton Key") as a fellow sniper, Academy Award-winners Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper ("Adaptation"), and the always-reliable Dennis Haysbert ("Far From Heaven"). Sam Mendes ("American Beauty," "Road to Perdition") helmed.

The movie is a beautifully shot, no-holds-barred look at Marine life that takes us along on the roller coaster of emotions faced by this group. We fear for Swoff and company as they take fire from both Iraqis and Americans. We feel their anguish as they realize wives and girlfriends have moved on with their lives stateside. Shock fills the theater as the viewer realizes how all the watchful waiting wears on Swoff.

Time is the most important element of the film. The Marine's naiveté at just how long it will take them to "kick Iraqi [butt]" and end this war- two days. The long, drawn out waiting in the Saudi Arabian desert for combat to begin - 175 days, 14 hours and five minutes. The length of Swoff's actual war.

Early in the film, Swoff explains that, to him, the nickname Jarhead is not only literal - the way the Marines look - it also implies that they are empty vessels waiting to be filled. Each Jarhead takes away experiences that will last their lifetimes. "Jarhead" will have a lasting impact on the viewer as well.

First published 11/09/05 in the Valley Life section of the L.A. Valley Star.

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