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Review: 'Jarhead' a war movie with no war

Persian Gulf War film a stark character study, but little more

By Paul Clinton
For CNN.com

Jarhead
Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) catches up on his reading in "Jarhead."

FACT BOX

'Jarhead'

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper, Dennis Haysbert

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: William Broyles Jr., based on the memoir by Anthony Swofford

Studio: Universal

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(CNN) -- "Jarhead," a blow-by-blow first-person account of the Persian Gulf War, is far less compelling than Anthony Swofford's 2003 memoir of the same name on which the movie is based.

By carefully avoiding any references or comparisons to the current situation in Iraq, it's not an anti-war movie. Frankly, it's barely a war movie at all -- at least, not in the classic troops-clashing-in-battle sense.

That lack of drive makes for an admirable character study, but keeps the audience at a distance.

"Jarhead" begins with Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal, making a smooth transition into mainstream Hollywood filmmaking) and keeps its focus on him as he goes through his personal Desert Storm.

The film traces his grueling, painful journey from boot camp grunt to high-strung, emotionally drained sniper. He becomes a one-man killing machine, with emphasis on "machine."

Waiting

We're taken into the inner workings of boot camp, as a group of men who wouldn't have given each other the time of day in civilian life learn to work together and finally come to the point where they would give their lives for one another.

It's a grim process made all the more intolerable by Staff Sgt. Sykes, played by Jamie Foxx. With Sykes -- declaiming, defiant, determined -- Foxx once again proves he's got enough talent to play just about any role.

Swofford is teamed with another grunt, Troy (the terrific Peter Sarsgaard), to be trained as snipers. Snipers work in teams and they're put together at random.

Long days of training finally pay off when they're finally sent to Kuwait, only to find themselves sitting on their humps for six mind-numbing months in the scalding desert, waiting and waiting some more, doing their best to hang on to their sanity and keep their raging testosterone in check.

Finally the men see four days and four hours of actual action against the enemy. But it becomes painfully clear that this isn't to be their war, one fought on the ground, but rather an air war using Scud missiles and fighter jets with burning oil wells lighting up the ink-black desert skies. All their sacrifices have been for nothing.

Quite frankly, so has the movie.

Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. -- a Vietnam veteran -- has written a war movie with no war.

The acting is superb and all involved try damned hard to give this film a purpose. There are some extremely interesting scenes -- one, in particular, features Swofford with an enemy soldier in his sights, but he's forbidden to shoot him by his superiors -- and some remarkable insights into the hearts and minds of men who face the idea of death every day while fighting a growing sense of futility about their mission. The few battle scenes are also well done and infused with a great sense of dread.

But somehow director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty," "Road to Perdition") can't pull it all together. In the end, "Jarhead" feels remote, uncertain of whether it wants to make a big statement, or if it wants to make one at all.

As a study of one man's war experience, "Jarhead" has its moments. But if you want a great movie about the Gulf War, rent David O. Russell's "Three Kings."

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