Universal // 2005 // 123 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // December 8th, 2008
"Welcome to the suck."
Based upon the bestselling book by former U.S. Marine Anthony Swofford, Jarhead offers one man's account of the Gulf War. From boot camp to the frontline, Swofford's story is not the typical gung-ho action flick, focusing instead on the realities of what it is to be a soldier in the modern war zone.
Having already been released on DVD, UMD, and HD DVD, Jarhead finally makes the transition to Blu-Ray, courtesy of Universal. But should you trade in your old DVD/HD DVD copies now? Not quite...
Beginning shortly after he enlists himself in the U.S. Marines, Jarhead is the true story of Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko). Following his time at boot camp, Swofford is stationed at Camp Pendleton, which itself is a grueling and in some cases deadly experience. It is here Swofford finds his true calling as he becomes a sniper for the Marines.
When Saddam Hussein orders his Iraqi troops to invade neighboring Kuwait, Swofford and his unit are shipped out to the Persian Gulf. With their orders being only to act as a defense against the Iraqi aggressors, the Marines quickly fall into a cycle best explained by Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx, Miami Vice), "You will hydrate, you will train, you will adjust to this desert, and you'll hydrate some more, and you will be ready." The lengthy downtime, waiting for action, sees the Marines suffer mentally. As fears that their girlfriends back home will cheat on them and the tedium of their routine takes their toll, Swofford comes close to a complete breakdown.
Finally, and not a moment too soon for the Marines, Operation Desert Shield becomes Operation Desert Storm, and the Marines are mobilized for action. As they advance through the harsh desert, the Marines encounter burning oil wells, cross the highway of death, itself strewn with countless victims of the war, and even become victims of a friendly fire incident. All the while they are given no reason to raise their guns. At each turn the Marines seem a yard off the pace, and it's not long before the realization that the war is to be fought and won without their participation starts to sink in, leaving the Marines feeling desperately ineffective.
Concerning itself more with the monotonous day-to-day life of a soldier in the combat zone than with epic battle scenes, Jarhead is all about the impact of war on the individual, rather than the individual's impact on the war. With the ramifications of the first Gulf War still ongoing, director Sam Mendes wisely chose to ignore the political angle when making Jarhead, something I actually found quite refreshing. Rather than make an argument for or against going to war and the reasons the U.S.-led coalition was so quick to jump to Kuwait's defense, Jarhead instead stays focused on the experience of the individual Marines, finding the intimate story in an international conflict. As one character declares when the political reasons for the coalitions involvement is raised, "Fuck politics. We're here. All the rest is bullshit."
Despite containing a rather sober message, Jarhead is a much funnier movie than I had envisioned. Okay, the humor is often quite dark, but it never feels unnatural. From the cruel pranks the Marines play on each other to Swofford's stint cleaning out the toilets, there is just the right amount of humor to alleviate what could otherwise be quite a somber experience; if you don't laugh at the Deer Hunter scene, as terrible as it is, you might want to check you've still got a pulse.
Taking Jarhead on between Brokeback Mountain and Zodiac, Jake Gyllenhaal continued his excellent and diverse run of roles as the often conflicted Swofford. Swofford admits early on that he has no life outside of the army, yet does everything he can to get out of his duties; he's constantly terrified his girlfriend back home will meet another man, yet he joins in the humiliation of other Marines who share his fears. It's these internal conflicts that Jarhead is most interested in. Even when the character is required to hide his real emotions, Gyllenhaal offers a glimpse of the true feelings bubbling beneath the surface, ensuring Swofford remains all too human. Matching Gyllenhaal stride for stride is Peter Sarsgaard (Garden State) as Alan Troy. Troy is the real tragic figure of Jarhead; as such it is Sarsgaard, not Gylenhaal, who gets the film's most emotional scenes. As his character is developed, it is Troy, not Swofford, who is the easiest to empathize with. Despite the rich material he is given, Sarsgaad nails the role without ever threatening to overplay it. However, for all the excellent work of Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx steals every scene he is in as Staff Sgt. Sykes, whose tough love for his recruits sees him droppiong more f-bombs than John McClane (Die Hard). The brief monologue delivered by Sykes on the relationship he shares with both his family and the U.S. Army is a sobering moment; it helps rationalize why anybody would want to put themselves on the frontline, while serving to humanize the character.
Visually Sam Mendes has crafted a masterpiece, a work of art whose morbid beauty is only bolstered further by its hi-def upgrade. Each scene, every shot has clearly been thought over to maximize its impact. The Blu-Ray transfer, which appears identical to the earlier HD DVD release, is blessed with a stunning 2.35:1 1080P transfer. In keeping with Mendes's vision contrast levels are high. Though this overly stylized look sees colors appearing washed out, the combination of deep black levels and a consistent sharpness results in a series of striking and wholly memorable scenes. There are two standout scenes that should seal the deal for anyone considering upgrading their DVD copy. The first involves Jake Gyllenhaal's Swofford standing perfectly still as explosions ring around him. As mortars fall from the skies, causing panic all around, the camera stays tight on Gyllenhaal who is sprayed with sand and dirt. The level of detail in the scene is outstanding. From the fabric of his fatigues to the grains of sand falling upon them, the clarity is a big step up from the DVD. The second scene worthy of singling out is set just after the Iraqi's have set fire to the Kuwaiti oil wells. Set at night, the sky is awash with oil that descends upon the American soldiers, each drop clearly visible as it falls. But what is most impressive, even more so than the detail levels, is the depth of the blacks. Combined with the intensity of the raging fires, the scene is given an unnatural, almost dreamlike quality, which is only heightened by the appearance of a lone horse, which sees Mendes's artistic vision matched perfectly by the technical benefits of the hi-def transfer. Though the transfer is not quite the crème de la crème of hi-definition -- that honor still resides with Speed Racer -- Jarhead is still worth whipping out to show off your setup.
Despite being a war movie, Jarhead is quite low on explosions, yet the Blu-Ray still impresses with its audio. Dialogue is never anything less than crisp, with no instances of distortion or background noises overpowering the actors' delivery. When the explosions do ring out the DTS-HD 5.1 track excels. From fighter planes soaring overhead to mortar fire, the upgrade to Blu-Ray only serves to immerse the viewer further.
Now for the bad news: Jarhead comes to Blu-Ray bereft of any of the extras from the previous releases, except for two audio commentaries; welcome to the suck, indeed. Sam Mendes offers a commentary that goes to great lengths to detail the filmmaking process. Better still is the commentary featuring screenwriter William Boyles Jr. and the real Anthony Swofford, who wrote the book on which the film is based. Detailing some of the changes in translation from page to screen, the commentary contains numerous snippets of Swofford's personal experiences of military life that prove fascinating.
It doesn't happen until around the 90-minute mark, but Jarhead does begin to lose its grip on the viewer as the story of monotony becomes ever so slightly monotonous itself. It's not a constant decline, but I did find my interest levels begin to fluctuate.
By its very nature, Jarhead is not a film concerned with a big explosive ending. Instead events end somewhat abruptly, mirroring the war itself. It doesn't make for the most satisfying ending and is likely to have some viewers wondering just what the hell happened.
What should have been the definitive version of Jarhead ends up being something of a letdown. The lack of bonus features, available on the previous DVD and HD DVD releases, makes this Blu-Ray come up short...so much for winning the format war, eh?
The film itself does suffer from some pacing issues, particularly once the action moves to the Gulf, but otherwise Mendes has another fine film under his belt that explores the reality of life for those of us who heed the call to defend our country and the problems that come from not being able to do that job.
Slapped wrists for Universal for skimping on the extras, but otherwise this is the best way you can currently experience Jarhead. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2008 Paul Pritchard; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Two Audio Commentaries
* Official Site