'Jarhead': Less Than the Sum of Its Parts Anthony Swofford's memoir of his time as a Marine in the first Iraq war, Jarhead, has been adapted to the screen. Critic Kenneth Turan says the movie has brilliant parts and excellent co-stars, but the picture rarely makes the emotional connection it's after.
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'Jarhead': Less Than the Sum of Its Parts

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'Jarhead': Less Than the Sum of Its Parts

Review

Arts & Life

'Jarhead': Less Than the Sum of Its Parts

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Few film projects this year have a more impressive pedigree than "Jarhead." It's based on Anthony Swofford's memoir of the first Gulf War. It has an Oscar-winning director and it has several box office draws. But Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan says the film doesn't add up.

KENNETH TURAN reporting:

"Jarhead" is a motion picture with exceptional parts that ends up a less-than-compelling whole. A web of interlocking reasons weakens this film's structure from within before anyone noticed what was happening. "Jarhead's" individual elements are excellent, starting with that well-reviewed book and director Sam Mendes, the cast top lines hot young actor Jake Gyllenhaal as protagonist Anthony Swofford and includes expert co-stars Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx.

(Soundbite of "Jarhead")

Mr. JAMIE FOXX: (As Sergeant Siek) Staff Sergeant Siek. I'm with surveillance and target acquisition, STA. I heard it took six guys to pull that little branding trick on you and your file says that you ain't (unintelligible) you better get unsick and make your tick because there's a chance that you could be a scout sniper.

Mr. JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (As Anthony Swofford) Is that an order, Staff Sergeant?

Mr. FOXX: (As Sergeant Siek) It's the best job in the Marine Corps.

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Anthony Swofford) Sounds good, Staff Sergeant.

TURAN: Against all expectation, however, all of this excellence has a negligible impact. As much as we intellectually admire "Jarhead," it rarely makes the kind of emotional connection it's after. Taking this particular book to the screen has proved to be surprisingly difficult. "Jarhead's" success as a memoir of time spent in the desert waiting for war comes from the seductive intimacy of Swofford's style. His writing takes us deep inside one man's head in an irresistible way. "Jarhead" the movie is after a different game. It wants to show us the Marine experience writ large, so it has pared back Swofford's voice. That turns an interior story into an exterior one, and leaves behind only a series of incidents, incidents that tend to play out surprisingly standard on screen.

(Soundbite of "Jarhead")

Mr. FOXX: (As Sergeant Siek) You will repeat after me. This is my rifle.

Group of Men: (In unison) This is my rifle.

Mr. FOXX: (As Sergeant Siek) There are many like it, but this one is mine.

Group of Men: (In unison) There are many like it, but this one is mine.

Mr. FOXX: (As Sergeant Siek) Without my rifle, I am nothing.

Group of Men: (In unison) Without my rifle, I am nothing.

TURAN: The postmodern lack of action in the Gulf War and what it does to Swofford's head is one of the book's strengths. But existential crises, symbolized by Swofford toting around a copy of Camus's "Stranger," play better on the page. Philosophical implications aside, when nothing is happening on screen, it's hard not to feel bored.

Providing the final touch to "Jarhead's" litany of problems is an ironic accident of timing. Swofford's book benefited by being published during the buildup to the current Iraq invasion. Mendes' film, on the other hand, is hurt by coming out in the middle of the war. Its polished surfaces feel fake, compared with the gritty reality conveyed by documentaries like "Gunner Palace" and "Occupation Dreamland." Compared to them, "Jarhead," good intentions and undeniable skill notwithstanding, inevitably comes up short.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan reviews films for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times. And "Jarhead" opens today in limited release.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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