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A Funny Drama Rolled up into a Memoir

From the very beginning, when the all you hear is a voice narrating over a dark screen, to the rough and tumble intro in which the narrator stumbles his way through boot camp, through his training in the Marines and his time serving in Operation Desert Storm up until when the credits roll, Jarhead will keep you riveted. Which is surprising for a war, and a story, that lacks any real "action", as defined by a typical Hollywood movie. But, then again, Jarhead is not your typical Hollywood movie.

Adapted from author Anthony Swofford's memoir of his experiences as a Marines sniper in the first Gulf War by screenwriter William Broyles Jr. and director Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition, American Beauty) this film says "Oscar" all over it. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the Camus reading, rebellious and off-kilter Swofford who "got lost on the way to college" and ends up in the Marine corps, affectionately referred to time and again as the SUCK. His platoon is full of types. Whether this was really the case or a Hollywoodization of reality is not clear unless you've read the book.

There's the redneck, the vivacious person(s) of color, the na´ve farm boy, the unscrupulous troublemaker and the good guy, the ever-observant Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) who's constantly defusing sticky situations; "Swoff" fits somewhere in between the rabble-rouser and the do-gooder. Jaime Foxx as Staff Sgt. Sykes is one of the more memorable figures to come out of the war movie genre; while not given that much screen time, he pulls off a thoughtful, nuanced role as opposed to the bombastic, obnoxious and violent characters that are usually reserved for officers and sergeants in films of this genre.

After being chosen to be a sniper, Swoff is shipped out the Saudi Arabia. It's hot, it's dry and there's nothing to do. One of the funnier scenes recounts him going through a laundry list of tasks his tentmates and he go through to pass the time and keep sane; it includes a lot of, uh, physical activity. Basically, for the first 175 days, their lives resemble more of a fraternity outing than a war (as Troy puts it, "Are we ever going to kill anyone?") although they are constantly being fed a steady stream of agit-prop geared towards pumping them up for imminent combat.

During one political argument, one of the guys in the platoon points out that the U.S. was the one who gave Saddam Hussein the weapons in the 1st pace, he is met with resistance and a blunt retort of "fuck politics!" I guess when you're putting your life out on the line, you need to believe that it's for a good reason, even when it's not.

One of Jarhead's best features is its witty dialogue, a testament to Swofford's writing. It keeps the plot moving briskly and saves it from sagging when in another movie you might be fidgeting in your seat. Indeed, the movie has some of the tightest dialogue this side of the Mississippi. Mendes purposefully utilizes music to establish mood and entrench the audience in a scene, in a similar vein to directors Quentin Taratino and Baz Luhrmann. All the acting is outstanding, especially that of Gyllenhaal, Sarsgaard and Foxx. Gyllenhaal pulls out a great performance.

Mendes' directing is confident and powerful, particularly those scenes depicting the Kuwaiti oil fields that were lit on fire. If hell were a place, this is it. You actually feel as if you yourself were out on that desert with the fires raging around you, the sky choked with smoke and gooey petroleum raining down on you. Another stunning visual included a freeway graveyard stretching out into nowhere in which vehicles and passengers alike were burned to a crisp. It is more gruesome than anything one could find in a horror movie mostly because it actually happened.

Jarhead is both funny and beautiful. You are constantly engaged whether through the humorous writing, the eye-catching visuals, the soundtrack or the story itself. It is movie not to be missed.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars