The title of Anthony Swofford's vivid memoir Jarhead refers to the traditional "high-and-tight" haircuts of the Marines, but it's also a synonym for "dupe" or "sucker," someone who got roped into a raw deal. In his book about his Gulf War I experience, Swofford and his military comrades wait fretfully for combat that never materializes, while baking in the desert sun and steaming about their wives and girlfriends cheating on them back home. And yet for a book of inaction, Jarhead resonates with propulsive urgency, dark wit, and passages that stand alongside the most harrowing of war literature. The film adaptation of Swofford's book faced two serious challenges: giving shape to the loose, episodic narrative without sparing the author's ferocious prose, and filling those endless dull stretches with anticipatory tension. Screenwriter William Broyles, Jr., a former Vietnam pilot and Newsweek editor, connects reasonably well with the material, but American Beauty director Sam Mendes has a tendency to smooth out the rough edges, and the film goes flat as month-old soda.
Though the book harbors some hostility toward the Marine Corps—at least as a choice for Swofford—it's also notably apolitical, which stays true to the "kill-or-be-killed" mentality that soldiers must take into battle. In this regard, Jarhead isn't a pro-war or anti-war movie, it's a peek inside the sausage factory, aligning itself to the grunts like Swofford who do all the dirty work. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the author as what he was—a tough, dutiful soldier who fulfilled his part of the bargain, no matter his misgivings—and only the voiceover reveals a more tumultuous inner life. After suffering the brutality of basic training, during which a drill sergeant smashes his head through a chalkboard, Gyllenhaal gets assigned as a scout-sniper for a Surveillance Target/Acquisition unit, which carries out delicate "one-shot/one-kill" missions. But since Operation Desert Storm was more a bulldozer than a scalpel, Gyllenhaal and his team, led by fierce Corps devotee Jamie Foxx, are never given much to do.
Nothing much happens in Jarhead: There are no major battle sequences, and the enemy is limited to a mere cameo in Gyllenhaal's sights, so the war becomes a nervous sort of stalemate: all tension, no release. The fear of the unknown drives soldiers crazy when they aren't going mad from boredom, yet Mendes misses that anxiety completely, relying on voiceover and ironic song selections to do all the heavy lifting. In the right hands, Jarhead might have been a tense, Federico Fellini-esque carnival of horrors, or maybe an irreverent political comedy along the lines of Three Kings, but the film never comes to life. It just languishes in the desert, waiting.