The movie follows the trajectory of Swofford (played with thoughtful intensity by Jake Gyllenhaal) from wayward Marine recruit (he joined because he "got lost on the way to college") to skilled Marine sniper, and on into the desert in preparation for the attack on Iraq. No-nonsense, Marine-for-life Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), the man who recruited Swofford and his spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) into the sniper team, leads them in training, and in waiting where their lives are dominated by endless tension, pointless exercises in absurdity (like playing football in the scorching heat of the desert in their gas masks so it will look better for the medias TV cameras), more training, and constant anticipation of the moment to come when theyll finally get to kill. When the war does come, it moves too fast for Swoffords sniper team, and the one chance they get at a kill--to do the one thing theyve trained so hard and waited so long for--eludes them, leaving them to wonder what was the point of all they had endured.
As directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), the movie remains very loyal to the language and vision of the book, but it doesnt entirely work as the film needs something more than a literal translation to bring out its full potential. Mendess stark and, at times, apocalyptic visuals add a lot and strike the right tone: wide shots of inky-black oil raining down on the vast, empty desert from flaming oil wells contrasted with close-ups of crude-soaked faces struggling through the mire vividly bring to life the meaning of the tagline "welcome to the suck." But much of the second half of the movie will probably leave some viewers feeling disappointed in the cinematic experience, while others might appreciate its microcosmic depiction of modern chaos and aimlessness. Jarhead is one of those examples where the book is better than the movie, but not for lack of trying. --Dan Vancini