Nov 9, 2005 at 12:00 am

For all its great lines, potent images and nuanced performances, director Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, an adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s first-person account of life as a Desert Storm Marine, isn’t the definitive statement on the Gulf Wars that it aspires to be. Admittedly, it’s part of the movie’s design to resist easy answers: It’s about the futility and absurdity of our first mission in the Persian Gulf, and all the boredom, craziness and apathy that’s bred by not seeing any action (in every sense of the word). But Mendes seems unwilling — or unable — to home in on the emotions that would make his sundry big themes connect with the audience. It’s a striking but frustrating film. You can’t say it sits on the fence; it doesn’t know which fence to sit on in the first place.

Jarhead takes us from the home front to basic training to the oil fires of Kuwait and back again, all through the eyes of Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), a blank-slate Californian with the Marines in his blood. Working his way up from naïve private to ace sniper, the Camus-reading “Swoff” is alternately entertained, horrified and seduced by the behavior of his fellow grunts. He gravitates toward the seemingly calm, matter-of-fact, Hemingway-quoting Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), but when their platoon is plopped in the desert for months without a conflict in sight, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell who will snap first, and over what issue: their girlfriends’ infidelities, the horrors of seeing charred Iraqi remains, or the crippling bureaucracy of a modern, high-tech war.

The movie doesn’t operate in a political vacuum the way the brilliant-but-empty Black Hawk Down did, but it also doesn’t draw many comparisons between the relative inactivity of the first Gulf War and the treacherous battlegrounds of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Most of the film’s conscientious objections are voiced by an outspoken Texan (Lucas Black, in a terrific performance), which seems a little out of character considering his bloodlust. For the most part, Mendes seems to take Troy’s advice a little too much to heart when he says, “Fuck politics. We’re here. All the rest is bullshit.”

Oddly, there’s a ton of sexual frustration in Jarhead, and the Marines aren’t the only ones who don’t know what to do with all the energy. Mendes devotes a lot of screen time to the guys obsessing over their wives and girlfriends back home, and all the boasting, insulting and jerking off that goes with it. But very little is made of all the frolicking nudity and the unusually beatific shower scenes; the director makes a tenuous link between the thrill of sexual conquest and the thrill of the kill, but he doesn’t follow through on the idea.

The director’s skill with actors, however, makes up for a lot. As the fast-talking Sgt. Sykes, Jamie Foxx is able to reconcile all of the seemingly contradictory aspects of a man who’d rather be home with his wife and kids, but also more than willing to go back and do it all again, poison gas, oil fires and all. Dennis Haysbert has a couple of brief but electrifying scenes as an imposing major with a fondness for sitting in lawn chairs and orchestrating mass destruction. Gyllenhaal works his cute little bemused smirk to good effect, but his performance could use more of the quiet, observant curiosity he brought to Donnie Darko.

Ultimately, Jarhead shoots itself in the foot by constantly referencing other, better war films. There’s a scene where the recruits watch the “Flight of the Valkyries” sequence from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and hoot and holler, responding to that film’s spectacle of Vietnam carnage. It’s a telling, ironic moment, but it also points out how Mendes could never make a scene like Coppola’s, since his musical choices are all so ploddingly obvious. When the Marines go through gas mask drills, he puts T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” on the sound track; when they strip down to their underwear in the desert, it’s to the tune of the terrible C&C Music Factory single “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” At one point, Swoff hears someone playing the Doors and shouts, “That’s Vietnam music! Can’t we get our own fucking music?” If Jarhead is any indication, he’ll have to wait a little longer.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].