RECAP: Jarhead

Jarhead (2005): Sam Mendes

I’m trying something new here at The Exploder: reviewing an inaction action movie. Jarhead tells the story of Anthony Swofford, eventual private, in the US Marin Corps during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

It’s a long story for a short war, as it kicks off at Camp Pendleton in 1989, two years before the fight against Saddam “Insane,” as one character refers to him.

Strange thing is, Jarhead is perhaps the only war movie in which the main character doesn’t fire a shot.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A young Marine sniper survives the Gulf War without sniping anyone. 

Hero (6/10)

Chiseled ab expert Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lance Corporal Anthony Swofford. Swoff joined the Marine Corps because he “got lost on the way to college,” a reasonable excuse for those, like Swofford, living outside Massachusetts.

Once at Camp Pendleton, Swoff appears singled out for ridicule in basic training. His drill instructor engages him in cruel questions that have multiple, wrong answers. Swoff drops and give 20 for wrong answers.

Basic training sucks, obviously, but Swoff passes and is placed in Golf unit, one full of “retards and fuckups,” according to the sergeant who placed him there. When Swoff first enters Golf’s barracks, he watches several men brand another with a scalding iron.

Later, these Marines try the trick on Swoff, who fights off two of them before six men help duct-tape him to his bed post. At the last moment they switched the hot brand for a cool one. “You want a brand,” says Alan Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) the man who will become his partner, “you got to earn it.”

That it took six men to subdue Swofford got the notice of Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx). Sykes introduces himself to Swofford while the latter is on the toilet and offers him a chance to try out for Surveillance Target and Acquisition, The Marines’ Scout Sniper Squad.

Swofford, who enjoy Camus, accepts. Swoff endures a training montage that whittles 60 recruits to eight. We learn that he is smart, though perhaps not street smart, and an excellent shooter, possibly the Marines’ best.

When the call comes to ship out to participate in Operation Desert Shield, Swofford is excited. “I wanted the pink mist,” he says. Pink mist is what comes out of a guy’s head when hit with a sniper bullet.

Swofford is portrayed as a marine too smart and too dumb for his own good. Dumb enough to let Sykes fool him into bogus bugle tryouts. Smart enough to realize that “a good listener” to his girlfriend is about to become her lover and let that ruin his mental state in the desert. Dumb enough to let someone else take his watch on Christmas Eve and let the barracks nearly burn down. Smart enough to realize that Sykes would order his unit to play football in 112-degree heat in full battle gear.

In short, Swofford is portrayed as a regular human being. He’s not blood-thirsty (despite the “pink mist” quote) and is easily bored. He worries about his girlfriend. He wants out of the Marines after the war starts. He pukes at his first sight of war casualties. He jerks off a lot.

Swofford shows that perhaps anyone could become a Marine. You don’t have to be a football star or the son of a marine or a psychopathic murderer, just a person who wants a good job and has the patience to work at it. He’s an avatar for young American males. During an interview with the press, Swofford even admits that he is scared. This is the opposite of Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, he who loves “smell of napalm in the morning.”

That’s what I liked about Gyllenhaal’s performance. He made me believe that the Marines are a tough bunch of folks, but mental toughness is what really counts. Their squad commander Sykes forces them to drink water as part of their desert acclimatization. Imagine drinking water in the desert as a form of punishment or dis-ease. That’s what Swofford endures.

Villain (3/10)

Iraq and Saddam “Insane” are, ostensibly, the villains of Jarhead. Swofford, Troy, Sykes, and the remainder of the Marine Corps are based in Saudi Arabia to fight them. Operation Desert Shield, and all that.

Jarhead‘s true enemy is boredom. Swofford lands in Saudi Arabia and deplanes a passenger jet (doesn’t the military fly their own aircraft?) alongside thousands of other Marines. He and his brethren are eager for a fight.

They won’t get into a shooting war for 175 days. The Marines, specifically Swofford’s Scout Snipers, shoot the shit for six months subdued by desert sun. Swofford lists a Marine’s choice of activities for filling the days. They include masturbation, cleaning one’s rifle, further masturbation, and further cleaning of one’s rifle.

Mendes’s greatest challenge as director lies in presenting the alleviation of boredom as interesting. Imagine describing a gray canvas for 90 minutes. He succeeds in creating a compelling film.

Acclimatization is first on Sykes’s list of activities for his sniper squad. A montage shows the Marines laboring under a brutal desert sky jogging, shooting, lobbing grenades, and pretending to remove delicate land mines. And hydrating. Sykes forces water down their throats, and the act resembles, or at least evokes, waterboarding. I can only draw this conclusion because the reports of US waterboarding surfaced two years after Jarhead‘s release, while the torture occurred during the film’s shooting. Jarhead could read torture reports and say, “Called it.”

The Marines create a scorpion fight ring, and we watch a grim death match between the champion black scorpion (which resembles, to my untrained eyes, a scorpion not native to Asia) and a newcomer, smaller white scorpion. The champ stings the greenie several times.

A “time in desert” graphic periodically informs the audience how long the boots have been on the ground, followed by a “troops in desert” graphic. The numbers only increase, and by much. Swofford was among the first 5,000 troops, guys stuck in a place with “no pussy in a thousand miles.”

After 62 days the men have created a Wall of Shame, on which they tack photos of their lovers back home. These “shamed” women have cheated on their men, and the Wall shows what those men think about them now. Swofford’s best girl, Christine, a Britney Spears dead ringer, isn’t up there, yet, but one of his buddies assures Swofford that she will be.

Some interest, for the marines, occurs when reporters visit. Sykes lays out the ground rules, making the American press seem nearly as dangerous as the Republican Guard. Not as deadly, but as dangerous. The reporters allow the marines to express their fears and speak openly. Swofford admits that he is scared. His viewers believe he’s scared of dying, but it’s his girlfriend’s doings with men back home that scare him.

Later, a reporter learns about the gas masks the Marines have to combat Saddam’s chemical weapons. Sykes orders his men to demonstrate their effectiveness by playing pickup football in full gear in 112 degrees. Only one person passes out. The game devolves into a strip show, where 20-year-old men take off their pants and pretend to hump each other.

The message is clear: caging men of unbridled sexual and bloodlust is futile at best, and at worst dangerous. Christmas Eve becomes a time to let their hair down, or in Swofford’s case, his clothing. Swofford, assigned watch on Christmas Eve, convinces a cohort (Fergie) to cover him.

Fergie gets homesick and lets the grill fire catch on a slice of cloth that spreads to a box of munitions. The munitions fire off, but luckily they are only signal flares. The camp gets a firework show to accompany their dance party. Had there been bullets in that box, well, that “troops in desert” number would have dropped.

Action/Effects (0/10)

As mentioned above, Jarhead is an action movie without action. Swofford doesn’t fire a shot until after the war is over. He was one of the first soldiers on the ground, and he never saw action.

Nevertheless, shots are fired. The Marines walk through Kuwait’s desert toward the front lines. They watch a group of A-10s fly alongside them until two break formation and turn back to shoot their American counterparts. They thought they were Iraqis.

Maybe those pilots were watching Jarhead and wondering where the Iraqis were, because we don’t see a single one alive until the climactic scene. They just wanted to kill someone.

I say “alive” because we see dozens of scorched Iraqi bodies. The Marines in Swofford’s unit crest a hill to find a miles-long line of burnt car husks. We don’t know what happened to them, only that hundreds of civilians burned. Their bodies are fully black–no rotting flesh here.

One marine surmises that these people had fled the war, but the war found them anyway. He’s certainly correct, but we never learn which side–Iraqi or American–brought the war.

When the war starts, however, the Marines are bombarded with artillery fire, Iraqi artillery fire. Swofford, seeing his first shots, stands on the hilltop during the barrage. The explosions hypnotize him. Sykes orders Swofford to get down, and then to run back to a truck and get a functioning radio battery. He comes back with a dead one. This is Day One of combat, and already the US’s most elite fighting force is unable to make a radio work.

That’s as long as the action scene lasts. The rest of the time they chase the front lines. What Troy said earlier, that the war would be a thousand miles ahead of them, proves correct.

Instead they track the war’s detritus. Charred cars, charred bodies, charred sand–that’s what they see. One night they try digging sleeping holes in the sand, but the sand is covered in the raining oil. “The Earth is bleeding,” Swofford notes. He spots an oil-slicked horse wandering the desert. He and another marine spat about an Iraqi corpse that Swofford ends up burying.

The lack of action scenes in no way detracts from the film’s quality. It adds much to its uniqueness. Jarhead is less “war movie” and more “guy in war movie.” It portrays what lack of a war will do to a marine, soldier, sailor, whatever, if they don’t have a war to fight. “Welcome to the Suck” is common refrain.

Sidekicks (5/8)

Swofford is a Scout Sniper, the man with the gun. “This is my rifle,” he says at the STA confirmation gala dinner. “There are many like it, but this one is mine. Without my rifle I am nothing. Without me my rifle is nothing.” These bromides are the credo of the sniper.

Swofford isn’t the only one claiming the rifle. His partner Troy sits beside Swofford and speaks the same oaths. Troy is Swofford’s spotter. He uses a scope to sight targets, range them, and judge wind vectors. Swofford takes this information and adjusts dials on his rifle scope. Troy repeats “fire” to signal an open shooting window.

Troy and Swofford differ for one reason, elucidated late in the film. “All you want is in, all I want is out,” Swofford says. Troy loves the Marine Corps; he wants to make a life of it. But the Corps learns that Troy lied about a criminal background on his application. They reject him for re-enlistment, and Troy learns days prior to Desert Storm that he will be kicked out of the Corps the moment his boots hit American soil. “Welcome to the suck.”

Sarsgaard plays Troy as the standard gung-ho marine eager for a fight. He’s the most excited about Iraq invading Kuwait. “Fuck politics,” he says to several marines. “We’re here, all the rest is bullshit.” Troy believes he is a Someone in Kuwait, and it’s why he needs the Corps so badly.

But because Sarsgaard is such a weird dude, he can’t help but make Troy seems weird. One scene depicts a nightmare Swofford has and the cruel awakening from it. Swofford, sleeping on a cot, looks around him and spots his buddy Troy. Troy stands on the head of his cot, and has obviously been watching Swofford sleep. Watching people sleep is weird, especially if it’s Peter Sarsgaard doing the watching and especially if you’re having a nightmare.

Late in the film, Troy becomes the guy who gets a USMC brand. Not Swofford, who was threatened earlier with it, but Troy. An interesting choice. The movie almost becomes Troy’s. Almost, but not quite.

Henchmen (5/8)

Jamie Foxx is a guy so cool he rubs his coolness in your face. I grouped him as a henchman because boredom doesn’t need any help, but Sykes offers Swofford and company some annoying oversight.

Sykes is the guy who busts Swofford from Lance Corporal to Private, solely for failing to watch when he was scheduled to watch. As a new private, Swofford is forced to clean the latrines. We are forced to watch. The latrines are wooden boxes surrounding two seat holes. You’re familiar with the workings of Port-A-Pottys. The troops enter, drop trou, and do their stinky business into a large metal bucket.

Swofford is forced to break down the contents of those buckets. Using a large stirring stick and gasoline, Swofford burns the more vile fumes of the brown concoction. As a sneering Swofford, shirtless, hunches over the brew, we are forced to hear the sounds of the bubbling cauldron. The liquids sound exactly like all witches’ bubbling cauldrons, a sound I will never un-hear.

Sykes doesn’t care. He’s actually a good boss, eager to lead his men in battle. “I love this job,” he tells Swofford later in the film, as they watch Kuwait’s oil fields burn. He says his brother offered him a job in the States, and he could be there, driving a nice car, “see my wife every night, fuck her maybe,” but he doesn’t take the job, because “who else gets the chance to see shit like this?”

He’s still a hard-ass boss. After the Marines pull their strip show for the reporter, Sykes forces them to build a tower of sandbags in the rain. While he watches from beneath a tarp, sipping tea, he asks them if they think they are funny now. The Marines are too tired to think they are funny. Sykes orders them to deconstruct the sandbag pyramid.

Sykes is charged with preparing his men to fight in desert heat. His in-flight reading choice is The Bible, and I think he was thumbing through the earlier books, so you know his training is about to get biblical. He forces them to jog in full anti-gas gear and drink gallons of Crystal Geyser water. The price of gas has doubled since the Iraq invasion, so a lot of folks eager to drive to the beach on Memorial Day for sunburns and dehydration need those marines to be ready for desert warfare.

The Marines were ready, but the war was too short for them. It’s after the war’s end that Foxx gets the coolest shot of the film. The Marines party around an impromptu bonfire in the desert. Since they barely discharged their weapons in combat, now seems like the best time. Foxx does so, shirtless, smoking a cigar, and one-handing a machine-gun large enough to need a limousine to carry around. Boss.

Stunts (2/6)

Without any action, there can be no stunts. I know that sounds like Machiavelli or Confucius, but I came up with that gem.

Some bombs and shells do explode in Jarhead, just not any that the Marines fire. Swofford stands during a shelling, some guys gets torn up with A-10 bullets shot at them.

That’s about all I can say. You expect more from a war film, but Jarhead is not your average war film. For not being something it’s not, I award the film two pity points in this category.

Climax (4/6)

News comes in of two highly ranked Republican Guards housed at an airfield nearby. The Marine battalion commander (Chris Cooper) sends Swofford and Troy to take them out, hoping that the other 750 soldiers will flee in turn and no one will have to make a big battle out of it.

The Scout Snipers are of course eager for a fight, the kind of mission most guys would “pop their grandmother to get,” as the commander phrases it.

Swofford and Troy head out to the airfield. A wall surrounds it, but we don’t see any soldiers. No one guards the airfield. The pair still army crawl (remembering their training) toward the base until they find an abandoned building just outside the wall.

It’s a perfect hideout. Too perfect. It’s-an-ambush perfect. But Jarhead, as we know by now, isn’t a movie about actual fighting. The pair settle into a prone firing position, range the target, set the sights. Swofford readies his rifle. He still hasn’t seen a single enemy combatant. Troy sets up his spotting scope and ranges the target at 900(!) yards.

Swofford peeks at the air control tower. Two men emerge there, arguing. Swofford and Troy seemed convinced they are the promised head honchos, but I’m not. One appears to wear a business suit. They could be anyone in the Guard unit, or even a civilian.

The snipers are not authorized to fire at will; they must attain permission from the radio. Troy calls in and gets it. Swofford eases his oil-stained finger onto the trigger. Troy calls out the “fire fire fire fire” command which seems to mean that Swofford can shoot as long as Troy says that word.

CRASH. A noise frightens the snipers. In bursts Major “Morning Glory” Lincoln and two underlings. Is anyone guarding this base? He orders Swofford off the gun. He has something louder and more effective planned.

Troy is enraged. He knows this is his last chance to score a kill before the Marines kick him out. Apoplectic, he pleads with Lincoln, calls him a desk jockey, tries to fight him, gets nowhere. Sarsgaard shows real despair in begging for the kill.

Lincoln chuckles that STA guys are “weird motherfuckers” and he calls in an airstrike. “You never know how many chances you’re gonna get to do this,” Lincoln says.

Two A-10s streak in and light up about everything on the airfield, including the tower, presumably with the two Iraqi leaders. “Are we ever going to get to kill anyone?” Swofford asks.

No. Later that night they stumble on a Marine Corps bonfire. The war is over. “Four days, four hours, one minute,” Swofford says, “that was my war.”

At the bonfire celebrating the victory, all the marines unload their guns, by squeezing their triggers.

Jokes (3/4)

Any war movie drill instructor is guaranteed to make us laugh. Drill Instructor Fitch (Scott MacDonald) is no exception. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” isn’t vulgar enough, he has to call her “Doggystyle Mary.”

Sgt. Sykes, though not a drill instructor, has tricks up his sleeve. He recruits Swofford on the basis of needing a bugler. Swofford arrives at the appointed site and is forced to bugle Reveille with his mouth. Reveille and Stevie Wonder. To be a Marine, one must first be humiliated. Sykes also calls Swofford “Sizzle dick.”

Jarhead is a funny movie, and it means to be. The characters make it so, not the screenplay. Major Lincoln dubs his daily bowel movement “morning glory.” A cameo from John Krasinski laments that he must write sex letters for a major despite being a Classics major at Dartmouth.

Swofford explains how Marines alleviate boredom on a base. Here are some ways: masturbation, rereading letters, cleaning rifle, further masturbation, arguing about religion, rewiring Walkman, further cleaning of rifle, further masturbation.

A key moment comes when Swofford can no longer masturbate to a photo of his girlfriend, because he believes she’s cheating on him. That’s sad and funny.

And there’s a lot of nudity. Swofford wears nothing but a Santa hat on Christmas Eve. The guys cavort in a group shower. But it’s all butts, so, joke’s on us, I guess.

The best and worst joke were the same. One of the Marines on base pops in a tape of The Deerhunter sent him by his wife. Not long after the credits roll, the tape switches to a man and woman having sex on a couch. The marines love it, until the tape’s recipient realizes that it’s his wife cheating on him. He’s apoplectic, and his buddies drag him away. After the pair finishes, the wife looks to the camera and says, “Who’s fucking around now, Brian.” She’ll make that Wall of Shame, surely.

Setting (2/4)

The unyielding desert. That summarizes the war for the Scout Snipers of the US Marine Corps in Jarhead. Soon after the Marines arrive in the desert, they train in its boundless wastes.

Roger Deakins, perhaps history’s most over-appreciated under-appreciated cinematographer, captures a desert that never ends. There is only sand. The sky is full of unbearable light, but we rarely see the sun during these training moments. Dune is set on a desert planet, but it’s got nothing on the Arabian Peninsula.

Several scenes take place on these wastes. The most brutal must be the football game waged in full gas gear. We are treated to some landscapes: mounds of sandy dirt (dirty sand?) courtesy of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Those fake hills can’t squash one of the 112 degrees.

Arabia’s repetitive landscape mimics the Marines’ repetitive base lifestyle. Jarhead‘s desert is not Lawrence of Arabia‘s. For its isolation and brutality, Swofford and the Marines of the STA might as well be living on Venus.

The monotony changes the moment the war starts. Orders come down to move to the Kuwait-Saudi border, and immediately we see a big hill, possibly a natural hill.

Suddenly, there’s a sun in the desert that paints beautiful night skies. The Marines experience this daily. And as the Iraqi army retreats from the unseen front lines, it ignites Kuwaiti oil fields in the process. These burning wells that appeared dramatically on CNN serve the same purpose in Jarhead.

The marines walk in the same horrible desert, but the oil fires provide an interesting, if horrifying, backdrop. And in the climactic scene, Troy and Swofford find an honest-to-God set of buildings. They aren’t pretty, but they are something more than flat sand and hills of sand.

Commentary (2/2)

“War is Hell” is an all-time cliche of war movies. Jarhead espouses a different take: war is dull. Not one of the men in Swofford’s unit dies. They don’t fire their weapons. Fowler, the most country guy in the Scout Snipers registers one kill: a camel.

The Marines spent 175 days in the desert before going to war. They spent four days at war. The only American we actually see die, for certain, was shot during basic training at Camp Pendleton. Perhaps this is not unusual. Recall that “friendly fire” was the official cause of death of Pat Tillman, probably the most famous American volunteer since Ted Williams.

The Gulf War built up and built up and built up until it was over in a snap. Saddam was willing to overrun Kuwait, but he didn’t want to test American might. Smart move on his part, because when Bush the Younger forced his hand, Saddam was deposed and executed.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

No scene offended more than the group shower scene I mentioned earlier. Despite having a dozen naked men walking around a shower, not one penis is glimpsed. (Shaking my head.) These are UNITED STATES MARINES HOO-RAH! They are too scared to show what they’re packing?


  • (3) Automatic war bonus
  • Cooper has two scenes, and in one he discusses the erectness of his penis twice.
  • Cinematography often portrayed men in rows and lines. When flying to Iraq the camera points out the neatness of the commercial jet’s rows, as if the Marines would fly no other way.
  • (1) Swell screenplay. Example: “So now, my hands were dickskinners. A flashlight is a moonbeam. A wall was a bulkhead. A shirt was a blouse. A tie was still a tie and a belt a belt.”
  • (1) Solid soundtrack features Nirvana, C.C. Music Factory, Naughty By Nature, and Public Enemy

Summary (37/68): 54%

Jarhead told the story of one marine among many, one guy who rose to the top of his field quickly, and was sent to a war he didn’t expect.

What Tony Swofford thought would be his Vietnam became little more than a training exercise. He considered that a letdown, case of different expectations. Jarhead is like that, a case of unfulfilled expectations.

Nevertheless, Jarhead is a good movie. Beautifully shot, well acted and well scripted, it asks how much of war troops can tolerate when bullets aren’t flying.

As Swofford narrates in the end, after he and other marines are in America and receiving their hometown parade, we learn what he has learned during his four-day war. “Every war is different; every war is the same.”