Toward the end of "Jarhead," the protagonist-cum-narrator of the military tale states that every war is different and every war is the same. It's an observation shared by those who've experienced such military action over the ages and have learned that no amount of training can prepare anyone for the honor, boredom and sheer terror that goes along with such service. A related statement that isn't heard in the movie -- although it's symbolized by the playing of other war films within this one -- could be that every war movie is different yet the same.
And that's because this look at the U.S. involvement in the first Gulf War back in 1990 is different from yet quite similar to other "war is hell" military flicks such as "Platoon," "Apocalypse Now" and especially "Full Metal Jacket." As adapted by William Broyles, Jr. from Anthony Swofford's first-hand account novel of the same name, the film goes through the usual motions of such pics. We spend time getting to know the characters in boot camp, and then see them through deployment and then time in the field, along with the related horrors and madness of that.
Accordingly, it's going to seem quite a bit like Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam masterpiece (which itself was similar to yet different from its predecessors), especially with the tough as nails drill sergeant bit, although no one here can live up to R. Lee Ermey when it comes to portraying such a military character. The difference, however, and presumably one of the points of Swofford's work and now the film, is that the Marines portrayed here by Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and their sergeant embodied by Jamie Foxx - don't really get to fight.
They're trained, prepped and psyched up for battle (having watched the fabulous Ride of the Valkyrie sequence from Coppola's Vietnam flick as motivation). But when the time comes in the form of Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard's sniper characters getting ready for the kill shot, they're replaced by an air strike that takes care of the job in a manner "that will blow your f*cking mind" to quote a higher ranking officer who cheats them of what they think and know they deserve.
While they see the results of warfare -- in the form of a bombed out and burned up caravan of vehicles and people -- their pent-up hostility (symbolized by all of the sexual material for its obvious parallels) isn't realized until the end. Then, and upon being notified that the conflict is now over, they collectively fire their weapons into the air in what amounts to a symbolic orgy of climatic release.
While one of the details of the film is the resultant neuroses and even psychoses of such a build-up without release in combat, the lack of that eventually renders the film somewhat repetitive as it spins its wheels in the desert once the troops arrive and nothing really happens for a long while. That's obviously the point, but that doesn't help the matter.
Director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty," "Road to Perdition"), however, gets a lot of mileage out of his visually hypnotic imagery -- courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins. That ranges from the stark blankness of the desert to the aforementioned line of "highway" death to the glow of burning oil fields juxtaposed against the otherwise jet black skies (and a lone horse that somehow appears out of nowhere, covered in oil, before disappearing into the void just as fast).
The filmmakers do soften some of that with various bits of character-based humor, especially in the film's first half when the troops are still stateside, but it's more comic relief and character building than actual satire as some might be expecting. And while some viewers may complain that this is yet another example of leftist Hollywood not being patriotic in the time of real war, it's not as extreme as other such films.
It may seem to lean more to the left of center than right, but it does contain pro-military elements. In fact, its lack of a true stance either way somewhat diffuses its message. Having not read the source material, I can't attest to whether that was also the case with it, but the filmmakers almost seem as if they want to play it safe and not offend either or both sides too much.
That said, as the protagonist and occasional narrator, Gyllenhaal is quite good playing the third-generation enlistee who has various, conflicting responses to what occurs. While he doesn't go quite as far as Vincent D'Onofrio in "Full Metal Jacket" in terms of succumbing to the relentless and mounting pressure, his troubles back home regarding his apparently unfaithful girlfriend only fuel his pent-up frustrations.
Sarsgaard is also solid playing his sniper partner with a sordid past, and Foxx makes up for his appearance in "Stealth" with a credible portrayal of a gung-ho staff sergeant who loves the Corps. Aside from Lucas Black who gets a few more scenes than the others (and still possesses that distinctive and identifying Southern drawl), however, most every other character -- including a battalion commander played by Chris Cooper -- doesn't get much time to develop into an interesting, onscreen being.
While it contains undeniably powerful moments and unforgettable imagery, the film can't shake the "been there, seen that before" reaction that many viewers are likely to have. It's certainly Mendes' weakest cinematic work so far (although that's comparing it to his other, superlative films), and the fact that it seems too tentative to take a forceful stand on the issue steels some of its firepower and keeps it from being as engaging, thought-provoking and powerful as it might have otherwise been.