Cinema Signals by The Filmiliar Cineaste:

The Autobiography of the Top-Ranked Marine Sniper
by Jack Coughlin

. "Jarhead"

As in the best war movies, the introduction of our military cast of characters, with all their variation of ethnicities, backgrounds and reasons for joining is colorfully well done and, unfortunately, the highlight of the film. This is a group of guys we're going to enjoy for awhile and, most of all, the central character and narrator, Marine Cpl. Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), the ex-marine who wrote the book on which it's based.

But after the introduction and first act the film gets in trouble with the tedium of a boring campaign out in the Iraqi desert and the inability to fulfill the promise of the beginning. This could have something to do with the lack of engagement with the enemy. Barracks camaraderie and macho bathroom humor doesn't quite compensate.

From the start we're in step with Swofford as he's being subjected to the indignities of the Marine drill instructor, D.I. Fitch (Scott MacDonald). We know this drill since we've seen it in many a movie, but it's humorous enough here to make the sequence fresh. "Yes, sergeant, I'm a dumb, recruit moron, SIR!!"

Soon thereafter, he's assigned to his squad where he's introduced to his barracks mates by being hazed as if he'd entered a frat house. He meets Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) with whom he's teamed in sniper training. It turns out, actually, that he's the best in his squad to which he's assigned and is singled out for a marine sergeant's version of respect by Staff Sarge Sykes (crisp Jamie Foxx) who delivers more than one sharply written training orientations.

By the time the team gets to Iraq, we're more acquainted with the cut-ups that comprise Swofford's squad, and the idiosyncracies that provide variation and "color." Problme is, by this time we're aching for a little colorful action or tension to lift the story into the main drama. But, even as the men aren't engaged by the enemy, so has drama eluded us. When Swofford and Troy are finally given a sniping assignment to take out two Iraqi officers in an airport tower, the mission is overruled by a higher command, that of Major Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert). Justification for their mission stolen.

The feeling of frustration overpowers Troy and, we feel for him because we're experiencing a related feeling about the film, which has failed to satisfy our needs to acquire dramatic justification. Things appear to pick up when Saddam's oil wells are set ablaze and the troop is able to get somewhere near the action. The mist of oil covers everyone and everything and fizzles all hope for an emergence out of the shadows of a quick war.

Despite a couple of nice inspirational turns by Chris Cooper as Lt. Col. Kazinski and a powerful realism in the visual tone of the film (Roger Deakins, cinematographer), there's a certain low-burning numbness pervading the film, an acceptance of inevitability and undirected discipline. Director Sam Mendes does his best to keep a level of drama going but forward momentum is constantly at risk of running out of gas or thrown a monkey wrench by frat level interaction.

Perhaps the mood of sorrow over battles never fought was, in Mendes' mind, a worthwhile irony. But the film, which I daresay everyone will want to be better than it is given so much talent and promise, seems to promote the opposing idea that exploding iron trumps irony in a wartime movie. Give us strategy and savagery, not sandy subtlety. Give us a better feeling for the mission of being a combat marine.

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Jake Gyllenhaal as Marine Cpl. Anthony Swofford
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