“I’m 20 years old, and I was dumb enough to sign a contract.”

This is Swofford’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) answer to why he serves in the army when asked by a reporter. Jarhead is an account of that feeling-the feeling of going off to fight a war when you’re barely old enough to pay your own bills. This is a story of being young and wanting to be a part of something important, wanting to define your life. Swofford was one, but there were many like him, all dubious as to what war was as a civilian and maybe even more mystified when their service was complete.

There is nothing graceful about Jarhead. Based off the memoir of the same name by Anthony Swofford, it is a stern and rigid look at what it was like to be a soldier in the Gulf War. It is the story of these soldiers, soldiers like Swofford: young, strong, stupid, arrogant, hopeful and willing. They had grand thoughts of what it meant to be a soldier, to fight for your country, to defend its freedom. Then they sat in a desert for awhile and realized their wildest dreams were just that…wild dreams.

Probably the number one mistake is assuming Jarhead is a war movie. It has all the right factors except for the most important one: the actual war. Most of the soldiers stationed in the Gulf never saw any action or combat. They were reduced to the boredom and simplicity of waiting for a force that was already being taken care of in the sky. Imagine going through the grueling training for a purpose that is consistently on hold.

What Jarhead does is chronicle that period of waiting. We watch as the soldiers go through their monotonous day to day routine: hydrate, play cards, argue politics, train, sleep, gripe over thoughts of cheating wives/girlfriends back home, dehydrate and masturbate. Jarhead has the kind of biting humor that makes you laugh out loud and feel terrible for laughing afterwards. Here you have men in desperate situations trying to make the best out of it before it gets the best of them. No one will ever experience the tedium or futility of life that the soldiers in the Gulf War have experienced.

The performances by each individual in Jarhead are outstanding. Each actor plays a part and each part is necessary and supportive for the rest. Peter Sarsgaard and Jaime Foxx are especially effective, but neither is as memorable as Gyllenhaal. What a performance he gives in a role that asks so much from such a young actor. He completely delivers. This is the type of movie that lives or dies on performances. In this case, it not only lives on them, it soars on them.

This isn’t to say that the other elements of production aren’t holding their own. The photography by the gifted Roger Deakins is enchanting and harrowing. Often using a hand-held camera, the audience feels like the part of the desert. Sam Mendes’ direction is impeccable as usual. He brings the same heart and ring to Jarhead that he brought to American Beauty and Road to Perdition. He never seems to misstep or wander off his path. Every pin he sets up he strikes down. Just like the direction, the writing-particularly the narration-is also outstanding. It captures the humor of being in hell for two years with no purpose to life but to wait. While waiting during war can sometimes be unavoidable, do not wait, see Jarhead immediately.

Danny Gordon can be contacted at