There's a moment toward the end of Sam Mendes' Gulf War film Jarhead that perfectly and arrestingly captures the indiscriminate horrors of war. Coming upon the burned-out rubble of a caravan of Iraqi vehicles fleeing the U.S. military, Marine Lance Cpl. Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his unit walk through the charred remains of people and cars in a daze. Later, Swofford goes off to relieve himself and wanders amid the desolation, making white footprints in the blackened sand. It's a haunting and powerful image, captured beautifully by Mendes and ace cinematographer Roger Deakins. In that moment and a few others in the film's final third, Mendes evokes the horrific pointlessness of warfare in a subtle and effective way.
The rest of the time, though, he doesn't evoke much of anything, and Jarhead's overwhelming impression is one of inertness. Part of that is intentional, no doubt: In its depiction of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the film emphasizes the interminable waiting and mind-numbing boredom that plagued soldiers holding out for bureaucratic approval to wage a war that lasted only a few days. Swofford joins the Marine Corps for reasons that are never quite clear, although it might be out of a sense of duty since his father was a Vietnam vet. He ends up a scout-sniper, perfecting the ability to shoot with pinpoint accuracy across long distances, and falls in with a crew of typical war-movie types.
The two who stand out are his smart but tortured buddy Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), but even they're given very little in the way of personality. Aside from a few brief glimpses at the film's outset, we never get a sense of who Swofford is or why he joined the Marines, nor do we even fully understand how the experience molded him into the person he is at the end of the film. Swofford is, for all intents, a blank slate, which is even more frustrating given that he is a real person and the film is based on his memoir.
Mendes bends over backward to be neutral, not only about the war but also about military life in general, and in doing so drains his film of much of its potential complexity. The idea that modern warfare is little more than a waiting game is a fascinating one that's worth exploring, but the nearly 90 minutes of the film that lead up to any actual combat don't do anything new to illuminate the plight of the modern soldier. Boot camp is hellish, soldiers miss their wives and girlfriends (some of whom cheat on them) and not everyone is gung ho about the war. The closest thing to a political statement comes from Lucas Black's good ol' boy soldier with a conscience, who points out that the U.S. supplied Saddam Hussein with weapons. He's promptly silenced with an admonition not to talk about politics, which could be the movie's motto, as well.
Most of this ground has been covered before, and more effectively, in movies ranging from Vietnam War accounts Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now (which these Marines are shown appreciating in entirely the wrong spirit) to David O. Russell's far superior take on the first Gulf War, Three Kings. Unlike that film, which used the Iraq conflict as a jumping-off point to take on the hypocrisy of warfare, Jarhead never even gets to a point from which it might jump. By the time the main characters see combat, Mendes has already blown his audience's goodwill, lazily using recognizable, early '90s pop hits and war movie clichés in place of anything novel or interesting.
Given comparatively little to work with, Gyllenhaal turns in a strong performance, but it's Sarsgaard who ends up carrying the movie as a conflicted and bitter man who wants nothing more than to be a soldier, even if he knows it's wrong for him. Since debuting with American Beauty, Mendes has been making increasingly precious movies about broad themes of American life. Jarhead is his most precious yet: a film about one of life's most primal experiences that's completely devoid of any sense of urgency.