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Hirsen Reviews 'Jarhead'
November 7, 2005

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

Jake Gyllenhaal must be a method actor.

He was evidently so geared up for his role in the recently released "Jarhead" flick, he punched out one of his co-stars.

There's one scene in the Gulf War movie where Gyllenhaal's character threatens a fellow Marine by placing a rifle in the guy's mouth.

"When I pulled it out, [I hit myself and] I remember I looked down and saw that my tooth had come off," Gyllenhaal told the assembled reporters at a promotion press conference.

"For some reason I just got so angry that I had chipped my tooth ... and just started hitting him and we didn't talk for a month after that," the actor said.

When fisticuffs break out on a set after the director has already yelled "Cut!" you can pretty much bet the film is going to be an intense one.

"Jarhead" is.

The movie is a war film, but not in the conventional sense. It focuses more on how one particular group of Marines prepares for battle but never really gets the chance to engage.

The theme is encapsulated in a single sentence, when Gyllenhaal's character expresses his disappointment at the end of the Gulf War by saying, "I never got to shoot my gun."

The film version of "Jarhead" is not nearly as negative with respect to the military as Anthony Swofford's best-selling memoir is. Sam Mendes (who also directed "American Beauty") appears to have made a concerted effort to be objective in his screen presentation.

The movie's story line revolves around the travails of the main character as he makes his way from boot camp to Saudi Arabia, where he interacts with other jarheads including Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Sgt. Siek (Jamie Foxx).

When a screenplay is adapted from a slanted source, it will inevitably contain some distortion. And although Swofford's experiences during the first Gulf War may be authentic, one must keep in mind that they are merely one Marine's point of view.

The characters who populate the film are quirky caricatures, the cinematic suggestion being that they are typical of all of our military.

This having been said, "Jarhead" is worth the watch.

The stunning images, expert directing and in-your-face script have the audience sweltering in the heat of the desert while appreciating the immense sacrifice of those who defend our freedom.

Some of the cinematography borders on the surreal and is reminiscent of "Apocalypse Now." (Ironically, in an early scene in the film, a large gathering of Marines view scenes from "Apocalypse Now" and root for U.S. forces like rabid sports fans in the throes of a "Monday Night Football" game.)

The scenes that depict the final moments of the Gulf War are notable. Vistas of blazing oil wells, charred corpses and an oil-soaked horse limping through the desert are sure to stick in the mind long after the last frame goes black.

Mendes apparently was too kind to the military for many in the film critic community. The movie is getting mixed reviews, with many of the mainstream publications slamming it.

Variety critic Todd McCarthy thinks the movie isn't bold enough. He claims that "Jarhead" is unable to achieve "a confident, consistent or sufficiently audacious tone."

The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan calls it "a cold film that only sporadically makes the kind of emotional connection it's after."

And A.O. Scott of the New York Times writes that "Jarhead" strains for "an authenticity it lacks either the will or the means to achieve."

The criticisms don't ring true. This film is, in this reviewer's opinion, audacious, emotionally stirring and authentic.

It is, however, full of profanity, so folks would be wise not to let the kids sneak into the multiplex.

Still, the movie is a partial yet powerful representation of the United States Marine Corps, and those who hold our military and its finest in high esteem will not be dissuaded.

Reproduced with the permission of . All rights reserved

Copyright © 2005
James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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