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Alone in the Desert

Sam Mendes tackles the Gulf War in "Jarhead."

11:00 PM, Nov 3, 2005 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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SAM MENDES has the unenviable distinction of having directed one of the three most undeserving Best Picture winners in the last 30 years. In 1999, his directorial debut, American Beauty, won the Oscar and then, immediately, began sliding to oblivion. A paint-by-numbers critique of American middle-class mores, American Beauty was so heavy-handed and obvious as to be insulting even to the elite sophisticates it attempted to flatter. Of course experimentation with marijuana brings happiness. Of course the homophobic, wife-beating Marine father next door is really a closet case. Of course the only well-adjusted adults in the neighborhood are the gay couple down the street.

But American Beauty now gathers dust on the bottom-shelf of cinema history where it sits forlornly next to Kramer vs. Kramer (which, in 1979 won Best Picture over Apocalypse Now) and Ordinary People (which beat out Raging Bull in 1980). Both the box office and the Academy are fickle, unreliable indicators of quality; the DVD shelf never lies.

Yet the story of American Beauty has a happy ending because the movie's success did not ruin its director. After all, it wasn't Sam Mendes's fault that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shoved Oscars into his lap. Since then, his critical acclaim has lessened, but his work has improved. In 2002 he directed The Road to Perdition, a solid outing, and now he has given us Jarhead, which is another step forward for him as a director.

JARHEAD is not a great film--in the pantheon of war movies it ranks no higher than the upper quartile. But it is an interesting and occasionally beautiful film and it is the first attempt to deal seriously with the 1991 Gulf War. (David O. Russell's 1999 effort, Three Kings, was little more than acid-washed, anti-American agitprop.)

Adapted from Anthony Swofford's 2003 memoir of the same name, Jarhead tells Swoff's story beginning, more or less, with his entry into the Marine Corps, where he immediately regrets having signed a contract with the United States military. Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) quickly progresses through boot camp and then, at the urging of Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), begins training for the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon (the STA--or scout/snipers). Here he befriends Allen Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), who becomes his partner, and other members of the platoon. When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, the lot of them are shipped off to Saudi Arabia in preparation for the Gulf War.

Once in Saudi Arabia, Jarhead shifts out of high gear and into neutral, where Mendes idles his engine for the better part of an hour. Swofford and his mates are bored, hot, and generally disgruntled. Much of their energy is spent worrying about the fidelity of their wives and girlfriends back home, with Swoff in particular being pained by the separation from his high school sweetheart, Kristina. Swoff pines for her and has nightmares about losing her affections.

Mendes walks a fine line and for the most part, he avoids the fallacy of imitative form: We understand that the Marines are bored, but are not bored ourselves. However, when Desert Shield becomes Desert Storm, it is a welcome release. Finally Swofford, his platoon, and the movie are swollen with the promise of forward motion.

But it is a false promise. The war is over almost as soon as it begins; Swofford sees some dead bodies, but never fires a shot. The movie's climax comes not in the form of a shootout, but a massive, booze-fueled frat party in the middle of the desert. It's almost a disappointment until you realize that Swoff has been spared the burden of killing; that the labor of merely waiting, pinned between the sand and the sun, is also service. Swofford and his comrades are uncomfortable with the heroes' welcome they receive upon their return to the States; Sam Mendes is not.

IF YOU SENSE a number of similarities between Jarhead and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, you aren't alone. The movies share similar stories, structure, and protagonists. For his part, Mendes is so preoccupied with Kubrick that he opens Jarhead by aping the famous barracks scene from Full Metal Jacket, as if to proclaim, Yes, I am aware of what's going on here. But the two movies diverge once the soldiers go to war; it's first time tragedy, second time farce.