Jarhead (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

 "Fuck politics. We're here. The rest is bullshit."

--- one Jarhead headed to the front ---


Jarhead is a movie about the experiences of a single member of the U.S. Marine Corps in the First Gulf War, or whatever the official name is for the war fought over Kuwait between the allies and Saddam Hussein. The story was originally written as a first person memoir by Anthony Swofford, a marine who was actually there and remains the central character in both the book and the movie.

It is, in fact, a very good movie which does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to allow somebody with first-hand experience of a unique situation to share what he knows with the rest of us. In at least two respects, a movie cannot really do this as well as a book. First, a film is limited by the inherent compression required in condensing a long story into a couple of hours of representative scenes. Second, a movie adds a barrier between the diarist and his audience - the interpretation of a director and his staff - while a book like Swofford's best-seller is basically a direct conversation between him and the reader.

In this case, however, both of the cinematic disadvantages were minimized.

1) Swofford's book is not just about his participation in the Gulf War as a sniper, but about everything in his life that led him there. The actual time of Desert Shield and Desert Storm takes up only a small part of this memoir. Most of his stream-of-consciousness recollection involves other things like his life as a military brat and his previous experiences in the Corps. The movie wisely chose to touch on the background elements only to the extent absolutely necessary to picture a soldier's life in the field, and how it relates, or fails to relate, to the experiences which placed him in that field in the first place. Apart from the action in the desert, the script accorded significant screen time only to the USMC selection process which led Swofford to become a sniper. The intense focus on Desert Shield/Storm was an excellent decision. The compression required from the screenwriter was far less daunting than if he had tried to condense the entire memoir.

2)  Swofford's voice remains essentially undiluted in the screenplay because he was an active participant in the creation of the film, and still plays an active part in the film's post-theatrical life, by participating in a full-length commentary track on the DVD.

On the other hand, a movie has advantages over the printed word. To be sure, it is dramatic to read about a platoon of marines standing in an oozy mixture of sand and oil while several massive oil wells burn in their sight-line, some of them a just few hundred yards away. It is quite another experience, a far more vivid one, to see that unimaginable image on screen in a night scene lit only by the flames spewing out of the ground, punctuated by fried Iraqi carcasses floating around in the ooze. That is a unique image which very few men actually saw first-hand, but which is now indelibly etched into the brains of millions of people who have seen and will see Jarhead. Because of this movie, I was there. I saw hell while I was still alive, just as Anthony Swofford did.

About 60% of the film's reviews were positive, and that percentage should have been even higher because many of the negative ones ignored what the movie accomplished and complained about what the movie did not accomplish. If the film had actually done what these reviewers suggested, it would have been a far worse film, so it's difficult for me to accept these as valid negatives! The New York Times wrote, "Jarhead is a movie that walks up to some of the most urgent and painful issues of our present circumstance, clears its throat loudly and says nothing." Another reviewer wrote "Puzzlingly hollow .... Although its portrayal of war as tedious hell scores points for novelty, the lack of a discernable point of view considerably limits the film's impact." Do you see what the reviewers are really saying? They are arguing that the film had a great chance to rail against America's militarism, or against the Bush family, or against the oil-based world economy and did not. In essence, they are saying that the author should not have stuck to the things he knew and was in a unique position to know, and should instead have devoted some of that time to things he knew nothing about, and should have offered liberal sermons like the ones found on the editorial page of the New York Times. In essence, those comments suggest that the author should not have told the unvarnished truth, but should have earned a positive review with lots of crazy, wild-eyed speculation like Syriana, or perhaps with unresearched disinformation and just plain stupidity like The Constant Gardener. This sort of criticism was by no means restricted to liberal ideologues. The right-wingers found fault with Swofford as well, and criticized him for his lack of patriotism and his inability to keep secrets which should have remained among the band of brothers. Although the screenplay was written by one Marine from a memoir written by another, one reviewer said, "This surreal display of depravity ... practically spits on anyone who serves in the Armed Forces."

One lesson I have learned in life is that if you get nasty comments from both the right and the left, you have probably done a very good job. Such is the case here. Despite what the political nutburgers wanted from it, Jarhead is simply not a political movie. The typical political movie operates like a Presidential press secretary. It starts with a point-of-view and then relates some facts to support that position, while ignoring any facts which tend to undermine it. Since a political movie is fictional, it feels free to create its own facts, some of them implausible if not outright impossible. Jarhead is a different beast entirely. The movie version of Jarhead tells the story of the war in the way Hemingway would have told it - straightforward, declarative, a first-person account in which the soldier knows about nothing for sure except the things he sees for himself. The narrator tries to share his eyesight with us, not his insight. Because his story is true and the world is complicated, some of the facts he relates will support our preconceptions, while others will undermine them. Without a specific ideology, the marine's experiences offer plenty of facts for you to incorporate into your world-view or ignore as you see fit. He is a man who trained intensely to become a hard-ass sniper, then goes off to a war and never fires a shot. The soldiers spend more time posturing for reporters than they do soldiering. His platoon comes upon an entire highway filled with cars and people - presumably escaping civilians - all fried to a crisp by American airpower. The grunts call the ubiquitous fried bodies "crispy critters." I find that there are plenty of lessons to be learned from these facts, and that any editorial comments would certainly be superfluous and would probably be simplistic as well.

At least one reviewer (Mike Ward, richmond.com) had the right perspective on the relationship between the film's strict adherence to the unvarnished facts, and the reactions of other critics. He wrote, "Some criticize Jarhead for ambivalence and ambiguity. But that's what Swofford's experience was about."


In fact, that's what life is about in general.

And art, for that matter.

The way I look at it, everyone has opinions about the war, and neither filmmakers nor USMC corporals have any better perspective than I can form on my own about the geopolitics. Frankly, they really have nothing to offer me in that regard, and simply stating their opinions will certainly not cause me to change mine. After all, as the man says, "Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one." But if they can show me something of which I was previously unaware, or picture sights I could not easily have imagined on my own, then they do have something to offer me, and may even change my opinion when I consider the meaning of what I have just seen. For a job well done in this regard, I say "Bravo!"

The film was nominated for no Oscars at all. I believe it deserved to be nominated for at least two. Peter Sarsgaard not only deserved to be nominated as the best supporting actor but, judging from the results, deserved to win it. (George Clooney won.) As for cinematographer Roger Deakins, well, he's a five-time Oscar nominee, and this is arguably his very best work.

If I had to be picky about the film, I'd say that it really does have a major weakness, although I don't know how it could have avoided it. There are some parts of this film that can put you to sleep faster than a Hugh Hudson film festival. One of the central themes of the film is that this war was not so much hell as limbo. Desert Shield, the part of the action where troops amassed in the desert to stop Saddam's forward progress and to lay the groundwork for an attack, went on for months in which the soldiers had nothing to do except sit around the desert and wait for orders. Desert Storm, the actual war, was over in four days and Swofford never even fired his rifle. Because the film tries to tell the truth, and the truth was about guys sitting around with nothing to do, the creative team gets caught in a dilemma. It can either portray that boredom or lie. It chooses to tell the truth by trying to capture the "feel" of Swofford's days in the desert, but those days mostly "feel" boring. Let's be honest, soul-destroying boredom rarely makes for a compelling cinematic experience. The script told the truth, and it chose valid artistic expression over contrivance, but boredom and ambivalence are not really very interesting or engaging, by definition. That's why most films choose to lie instead. 

As one perceptive Guardian reader wrote, "Fantastic direction, superb acting, a killer soundtrack, witty dialogue, amazing cinematography, first class editing and oodles of style couldn't, alas, make up for the dreadfully weak narrative ..." I don't know if I agree with his specific choice of the word "weak," but I agree with his sentiment fully. It's a brilliant film in which we, like the Jarheads, await something which never happens.

I am therefore painted into a corner, just as the filmmakers were. If I tell the truth, I may steer many of you away from an outstanding film. As I see it, the truth is that Jarhead is an excellent movie, an honest battlefield memoir brought to life by a scriptwriter who made good choices, and a director and cinematographer with brilliant visual imagination. But it is also a film that may infuriate you if you have strong political leanings in either direction, or if you want it all to get tied together in a neat point-of-view. It may bore you at times because General Sherman, if he lived today, would say "war is limbo," and limbo is less cinematic than hell.


The two-disc special Collector's Edition features in-depth bonus material that gives viewers an even deeper look into the talents' experiences on the set and the harsh realities of life on the battlefield:

  • "Swoff's Fantasies" with Commentary by Director Sam Mendes and Editor Walter Murch
  • News Interviews in Full with Commentary by Director Sam Mendes and Editor Walter Murch
  • Deleted Scenes with Introduction by Director Sam Mendes and Editor Walter Murch
  • Feature Commentary with Director Sam Mendes
  • Feature Commentary with Screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. & Author Anthony Swofford
  • "Jarhead Diaries" with Introduction by Director Sam Mendes - A look at the personal video diaries created by the talent of their experiences on the set.
  • "Background" with Introduction by Director Sam Mendes - Cameras follow the lives of the real U.S. Marines who appeared as extras in the film.
  • "Semper Fi: Life After the Corps" with Introduction by Director Sam Mendes and Audio Introduction by Author Anthony Swofford - Anthony Swofford and Laura Nix interview former U.S. Marines about their experiences re-integrating into civilian life.


  • Brianne Davis flashes her breasts as she models a USMC t-shirt.

  • Jake Gyllenhaal shows his butt in two different scenes,

  • There is a shower scene in which some of the Marines show various body parts, but it is dark.

  • A couple is shown have sex in a tiny TV insert.

DVD Book

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus out of four stars: three and a half   stars. James Berardinelli 3.5/4, Roger Ebert 3.5/4.

  • British consensus out of four stars: two and a half stars. Mail 4/10, Telegraph 2/10, Independent 4/10, Guardian 8/10, Times 6/10, Sun 8/10, Express 6/10, Mirror 8/10, FT 4/10, BBC 3/5.

The People Vote ...

  • Yahoo Movies. On the average, Yahoo voters assign Jarhead a grade of B.

  • Box Office Mojo. It was a minor hit. It grossed $62 million in the USA, $33 million overseas.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C+. Outstanding film about a subject (boredom) which is inimical to entertainment.

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