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Universal Studios Home Video presents
Jarhead (2005)

"Welcome to the suck."
- Troy (Peter Sarsgaard)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: March 05, 2006

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard
Other Stars: Chris Cooper, Dennis Haysbert
Director: Sam Mendes

MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content
Run Time: 02h:02m:44s
Release Date: March 07, 2006
UPC: 025192103728
Genre: war


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A A-AA A

DVD Review

Irony may be the great aesthetic plague of our time—it's infected not just our war movies, but our wars. Jarhead is a strange and fascinating effort, that's oddly not quite the sum of its parts. Perhaps it's because there seems to be too much of an effort to be emblematic of its historical time, and of ours; perhaps it's because all of us, and those who wear the uniform particularly, have become inured to war films. But there's a barrel of great stuff in here, even if it somehow doesn't all quite cohere.

The film is based on a memoir of the same name by Anthony Swofford, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Operation Desert Storm. The book is a startling account of the rigors of life in the Corps, the petty brutalities and incessant boredom and numbing repetition that fills up all of a Marine's hours and days. Swofford himself is the principal character of the film—he's played by Jake Gyllenhaal, brimming with intensity and resentments and dreams of greater glory. Certainly something's been lost from the page to the screen, though—one of the fascinating things in the book is the discordance between Swofford's gliding prose style and the drudgery and lunacy of life in the Marines. William Broyles Jr.'s screenplay tries to capture some of that in voice-overs, read with a flat affect by Gyllenhaal; but it doesn't come off, exactly, and instead the onscreen Swoff is one in a series of Marines, distinguishable from his mates by being the only one to read Camus on the toilet.

It's a movie that's keenly conscious of war movies, sometimes overtly—the Marines get themselves fired up for battle by watching Apocalypse Now, for instance, humming along to Wagner as napalm gets dropped, and the opening sequence of Jarhead, showing us Swoff in boot camp, invites our comparisons with the first reels of Full Metal Jacket. It's basic training as nothing but a series of humiliations, with an almost masochistic relish on the part of the newest recruits. Soon Swoff and his unit are pressed into duty: Saddam Hussein has just invaded Kuwait, and the Marines are deployed to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield, champing at the bit for a chance to get into the game. It's here that the movie is in many ways at its most effective—the madness of keeping hundreds of thousands of Marines unoccupied in the desert cannot lead to good things. These scores of men with swollen muscles have been trained to kill, and there's nothing for them to do but masturbate, disassemble and reassemble their rifles, fight with each other, and masturbate some more.

Director Sam Mendes demonstrates a sharp sense of technical control—his first two films (American Beauty and Road to Perdition) were highly skilled, but there's a new sense of fluidity to his work here. It's not quite as show-offy, and it's all in service of the story. Certainly missed is the fine work of the late Conrad Hall, the cinematographer on both of the director's previous outings, but Roger Deakins is a hell of a replacement—the bleached-out desert scenes can make you sweat, and the fires of the oil wells are saturated with a kind of satanic majesty. Soon Desert Shield becomes Desert Storm, the mother of all battles, one that was really just a layup for the American forces, over in a couple of days—the sense of frustration among the Marines is palpable, as most of them never even got to fire a shot. Mendes has a terrific ability to convey the inner lives of those who lack Swoff's articulateness—part of that, no doubt, is helped by the efforts of legendary film editor Walter Murch, but don't discount Mendes's ear for finding just the right popular music of the time to push his story along. (You down with OPP? Yeah, you know me.)

The sameness of the lives and frustrations of the Marines is much of the point, but it also keeps the cast from having any breakout performances. Gyllenhaal is at the story's center, and he's fine, but with a kind of stoicism that doesn't allow him to light it up. Peter Sarsgaard has a showier part, as a jarhead with a shorter fuse, and Jamie Foxx does well in a role that seems underwritten, a kind of generic commanding officer. (All of these guys were clearly hitting the gym really hard in pre-production, and are happy to showcase the merchandise, strutting around shirtless as frequently as possible, so many sides of beef.) There are strong, smaller turns from Dennis Haysbert and Chris Cooper as well, both of them higher up the chain of command. You can sort of feel the filmmakers actively encouraging us to draw analogies between this war and the current one being fought in the same part of the world; it's not done too deftly, though, and the movie is at its clumsiest when it's trying to get us to connect the dots. But it's very strong on the daily hell that seems to be so much a part of serving in the Corps, the stuff that you won't hear from recruitment officers or the Pentagon, or, for very different reasons, from most veterans, who keep their own counsel, or don't care to remember or reminisce.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: I suppose I should begin with the caveat that the disc provided for review came with a barrage of warnings about this not being the final product, the suggestion being that the transfer may be tweaked with some. Still, what's here will do just fine—Deakins has got to be among the handful of best cinematographers working today, and the control over palette, the various levels of saturation, and the mixing of stocks make this a stellar effort, a pleasure to watch, and a crucial component to the telling of the story.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
5.1
English, Spanish, Frenchyes


Audio Transfer Review: The audio is equally strong—aural information is coming at us from all directions at times, but the 5.1 mix keeps everything well balanced and maintains a high level of clarity.

Audio Transfer Grade: A

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Ice Harvest, Brokeback Mountain, E Ring
16 Deleted Scenes
3 Documentaries
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Sam Mendes (track one), William Broyles, Jr. and Anthony Swofford (track two)
Packaging: unknown double keepcase
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Jarhead comes to DVD in both a one-disc and a two-disc edition, and even though the packaging wasn't finalized when a copy was sent to dOc for review, all of the extras were sent along, from both editions, and it's really kind of a bonanza. Mendes provides a commentary track that's insightful and intelligent, especially in his discussions of the relationships between his film and Swofford's memoir, and with other war films (a special thank you goes out to Francis Coppola for allowing the use of the Apocalypse Now clip.) As you might expect, he's full of details on casting and on the shoot, and a good amount of the track is devoted to the politics of the movie. It's writers' shop talk on the second track, on which Broyles is joined by Swofford—there's the inevitable compare and contrast between Swofford's own experiences, his accounts of them in his memoir, and their depiction on Broyles' script pages and in the final cut. It had to have been an odd experience for the screenwriter particularly, watching the on-screen Swoff while seated next to the real live Swoff, having been entrusted with telling one Marine's story.

Swoff's Fantasies (06m:10s) is a collection of four deleted sequences, getting us inside the head of the protagonist—it clearly was the filmmakers' attempt to replicate Swofford's prose style, but though they were integral to the book, inclusion in the final cut seemed a little jarring. (It's a kick to see Swoff's drill sergeant in a house dress, though.) Mendes and Murch also provide commentary on these, discussing how they worked well on their own, but not as part of the larger canvas. The director and editor cherrypicked the best stuff from a series of improvised interviews, the cast members in character being questioned by a news crew; these interviews are included in full (16m:36s), and also have commentary from Mendes and Murch. The former is especially interesting here discussing the stylistic differences between this and his first two films—this one was a little more freewheeling and improvisatory.

A package (19m:09s) of eleven deleted scenes also carry commentary from Mendes and Murch; the latter is particularly interesting on why these needed to be dropped, and it's a great window into the mind of a first-rate editor. (Murch's book on editing, In the Blink of An Eye, is a quick read, and is terrific.) Most of them seem to have been dropped for reasons of pacing, though there's a nice alternate opening, with Sam Rockwell as Swoff's uncle, extolling the virtues of the Corps.

Mendes introduces Jarhead Diaries (30m:53s), for which a documentary crew was embedded in the production, rather than introducing intruders from the world of EPKs late in the game. The actors were given cameras, too, and we get to hear from the producers, as well as see Gyllenhaal get his crew cut.

The two-disc Collector's Edition has two bonus documentaries, both worth a look. Semper Fi (36m:09s) was presided over by Swofford, and looks at the hurdles faced by four Marines coming home from war—one is from Desert Storm, the other three from the current conflict. The thematic links are clear—whether you're from the farm or the South Bronx, re-integrating yourself into civilian society is a huge task, and one for which the Corps leaves you uniquely unprepared. Finally, there's a good-natured look (31m:10s) on the extras cast in the feature, some of them former Marines, some of them simply able to look the part. There's not a huge amount of insight here, but it's kind of nice to see Hollywood throw focus to those who are sort of backlot jarheads.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

You could fill up all the hours of a weekend pass with all of the strong stuff that's on this special edition, and it's full of fascinations. The feature itself doesn't quite have the honed storytelling craft of Mendes's other pictures, but there are strong, brutal things in here about men and war, stories that won't get told from Pentagon podiums, or even over a couple of beers when it's time to trade lies about the old days.

 


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