I guess there are two kinds of war movies -- those that depict actual combat ('Saving Private Ryan,' 'Platoon,' 'Apocalypse Now') and those that examine its effect without the carnage, whether the agonies of soldiers in boot camp or back home in the civilian world ('Tigerland,' 'Dogfight,' 'Gardens of Stone'). Unfortunately for the latter, audiences apparently favor the former, at least according to the box office. Films like 'Ryan,' 'Platoon' and 'Apocalypse Now' were huge, award-winning blockbusters, while few probably ever even heard of 'Tigerland' or 'Dogfight.' Now we have 'Jarhead,' an entry of the second group that takes aim at the horrors of war -- only without its soldiers every experiencing the horror. And as if only to underscore the point, it too disappointed at the box office.
Based on former Marine Anthony Swofford's best-selling 2003 book about his pre-Desert Storm experiences in Saudi Arabia, 'Jarhead' is the first mainstream film to dramatize the Gulf War. The story follows "Swoff" (Jake Gyllenhaal), a third-generation enlistee, from a sobering stint in boot camp to active duty. Unfortunately for Swoff has his eager gang of battle-ready fellow grunts (including troop leader Jamie Foxx, a near-insane Peter Skaarsgard and the perpetually horny Lucas Black), they will see no actual combat. Instead, under the crippling heat and with hours to do nothing but fantasize about the war they are not fighting, Swoff and his fellow Marines sustain themselves with sardonic humor, petty infighting, surreal freak-outs and homophobic games. It will all end not with a bang but a whimper, as they must return home not as war heroes but soldiers who never once fired their weapons.
As Skaarsgard says at one point on the disc's extras, 'Jarhead' is not so much a narrative but "a state of mind." Director Sam Mendes brings a similar restraint to the material he showed with 'American Beauty' and especially 'Road to Perdition,' throwing in the occasional theatrical-esque flourish (noticeably Swoff's pre-enlistment flashbacks early in the film) but otherwise opting for a more sedate, dream-like style. The film unfolds slowly, events happening without any concerted narrative flow. Swoff narrates, but offers little in the way of insight or profundity, instead weakly describing the oppressive conditions. Then, it ends and they all go home. Cue coda, then fade out.
Indeed, the majority of 'Jarhead' feels like the diaries it is based on. The nearly non-linear storyline does result in some languid, absurdist, even hypnotic cinematic moments -- Swoff standing under the blazing Iraqi sun wearing nothing but a jockstrap and a Santa hat, the grunts firing their guns in the sky like fireworks to celebrate the "end" of the war they never fought -- yet it never rises above the dramatically inert. There is a beginning, one long middle, and hardly much of an climax to 'Jarhead.' What should have been an emotional rollercoaster instead feels like some sort of pre-production boot camp for another, better movie. Mendes even grafts on an 'American Graffiti'-like coda to the end of the film, letting us know what happened to all the characters in a valiant attempt to add resonance to the material. But to no avail.
It is easy to see why 'Jarhead' failed with to click with audiences after a strong opening weekend -- one can only imagine gung-ho young moviegoers going in, expecting another balls-to-the-wall war film teeming with combat, like a 'Saving Private Ryan' or 'Black Hawk Down.' Instead, they got an existential drama as hollow as empty gunfire. To be fair, that is not really the fault of the material as much as either poor marketing or misplaced expectations. Yet 'Jarhead' is still not the grand statement it seems to think it is. It's drama just isn't pumped up enough. It's characters just aren't interesting enough. And nothing much happens to them.
Perhaps what 'Jarhead' needed was a totally whacked-out, surreal sensibility to it. Something more akin to the unhinged personality Coppola brought to 'Apocalypse Now' -- the feeling that a true madman was behind the camera. That might have given 'Jarhead' the ironic, satiric resonance and sense of thematic depth Mendes so desperately wants it to have. We all know war is hell, the military is depersonalizing and its soldiers must become so dehumanized they will kill on command. Unfortunately, 'Jarhead' adds nothing new to this equation. And as it stands, it just may be the most benign war movie ever made.
What has 'Saving Private Ryan' wrought? Ever since that Oscar-winning film stylistically "threw down the gauntlet" (in the words of Ridley Scott), every war film made since has co-opted its visual look. Meaning, now "war" equals "overly contrasted, bleached-out photography," where it looks like the world is living under an atomic sky.
So it goes with 'Jarhead,' which is presented here in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio and encoded at 1080p. Personally, I just don't think this is a particularly good-looking movie. I know, I know, it is supposed to be "stylized." But it just seemed lazy, at least coming off of 'Ryan' and similar-looking films like 'Black Hawk Down.' Once again, everything is bleached out and desaturated. The film doesn't have much in the way of fleshtones to speak of -- it almost looks like it was shot in sepia tone. Some of the daylight segments seem to have been processed heavily to give them an orange glow, as do some nighttime sequences. But even the non-active duty scenes are almost entirely drained of color. It is all as bland as styrofoam.
Given the material, I feel this HD DVD release boasts only a marginal upgrade over the standard DVD release. With such lackluster colors, there isn't much more oomph to the HD transfer. Detail and sharpness, too, still seem a bit lacking to me. The image never looked truly three-dimensional, like the best transfers I've seen. Sure, there is some grain and contrast and blacks are intentionally wacky, and it's intentional, but the image just looks flat. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with this transfer -- it is just hard to imagine this is the disc you'll whip out when you want to impress your friends with the quality of HD DVD.
Even more surprising than the uninspiring video transfer is the rather dull English Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 soundtrack. Sorry to sound so negative, but when I think "war movie," I think home theater nirvana. But 'Jarhead' is no 'Saving Private Ryan,' and the most exciting sonics you're going to get here are some rounds of gunfire and Mendes' attempts at surreality via the use of popular rock songs.
'Jarhead' is a primarily dialogue-driven film, so the majority of the soundtrack feels front heavy. Dialogue is firmly anchored in the center channel, and the front soundstage has some nice stereo separation to the music and effects. However, the surrounds just aren't that active, because like the grunts in the film, there is just nothing much for them to do. Some gunfire, slight atmospheric effects and the occasional additional dialogue is about it -- hardly a real involving experience.
The Dolby Digital-Plus track does offer a slight bump over the non-Plus track on the standard DVD, but not as much as the best HD DVD discs I've heard so far. A bit more transparency and fuller midrange, but hardly a revelation. Again, like the transfer, you can't say this is a bad soundtrack. Just nothing exceptional, which is certainly a surprise for a war film.
Now, here is where 'Jarhead' as a DVD experience really shines. All of the extras from the previous limited-edition double-disc version of the film have been ported over to the HD DVD, and I found them far more enlightening and intriguing than the film itself.
First up are not one but two audio commentaries. Sam Mendes offers the first, and it is pretty straightforward -- Mendes is definitely passionate about his film, though I couldn't help but feel he came off as a bit pretentious, however self-depreciating his brand of humor can be. Perhaps it is because I don't know if he was the best choice to direct this material -- a studied, highly educated artist with a theater background, he seems about as far removed from the American military sensibility as is imaginable. Mendes also admits to dropping much of the impressionistic material from Anthony Swofford's original book, which I thought really crippled the film. But in many ways it all makes this commentary even more fascinating, as it seems like such a clash of sensibilities between director and material.
The second commentary is even better, featuring screenwriter William Broyles Jr. and Swofford. Though Broyles repeats a lot of the same development and production info Mendes shares, it is Swofford who really shines here. His real-life experiences in the Gulf War, and how they were dramatized in the film, are truly fascinating. Highly intelligent, well-spoken and focused, Swofford blows away any preconceptions a viewer may have about what it means to be a marine, and experience life in the military.
Next up is a collection of excised material. There are eleven deleted scenes that run about 19 minutes, and most are more scene extensions than stand-alone segments. None really add a great deal to the film, so it is easy to see why they were cut. More interesting are "Swoff's Fantasies," which includes four cut sequences that might have helped add a bit of heightened surreality to the film that it certainly could have used. Also interesting are the unexpurgated "Solider Interviews" as seen in the film, and which is a technique I think Mendes cribbed pretty liberally from Stanley Kubrick's superior 'Full Metal Jacket' (at least Mendes admits as much in his commentary for the main feature). But best of all about the deleted material is that Mendes and legendary editor Walter Murch offer optional commentary throughout, with Murch explaining succinctly which bits were cut where and why. It's like taking a masterclass with one of Hollywood's finest artists.
The rest of the extras encompass three video-based documentaries. Mendes wanted something different for the 'Jarhead' DVD, going for a more video diary-like approach rather than the standard EPK fluff, and also pushed to have real-life marines interviewed to help bring a genuine sense of perspective to the supplementary material.
"Jarhead Diaries" would seem to be the centerpiece of the disc, but it actually ended up being the least interesting of the three documentaries for me. Mendes armed his actors and crew with digital cameras through most of the shoot, and they capture both the camaraderie as well as the tensions of shooting for many months together in such close quarters. Still, I expected a bit more fireworks -- aside from a funny outtake of Jamie Foxx doing a Ray Charles impersonation of a marine grunt, and Gyllenhaal's fight with a co-star, much of "Jarhead Diaries" focuses too much on the actors training for their roles and bad Hollywood pseudo-profound insight into military life. Not a terrible documentary by any means, but I've seen better making-of diaries on other DVDs.
"Background" is an interesting if somewhat superfluous look at the extras recruited to be grunts in the film. Shot largely in Victorville, California, just outside of Las Vegas, 'Jarhead' utilized many non-military, ordinary civilians as its soldiers. Unfortunately, and as much as I hate to say it, none of their stories are all that interesting. Many quit their day jobs at the office or local grocery store to spend the required two months on-set to be in the film, which was exciting for them but not so exciting to watch. Still, it is nice to see unsung extras get a little attention and respect for once, so I'm glad this documentary is on the disc.
Saving the best for last by far, "Semper Fi" is a culture piece that interviews five ex-Gulf War marines on their life after the military. It is moving, fascinating, challenging and haunting in all the ways 'Jarhead' itself is not. Perhaps the Gulf War is no incendiary historical moment equal to a Vietnam, but the hollowed-out look on some of these soldier's faces, and the difficulties they all faced in returning to civilian life, is just as powerful. Mendes himself in his introduction names this as his favorite feature on the DVD, and I have to agree. This disc is worth renting just for "Semper Fi" alone.
I expected more from 'Jarhead.' I've admired Sam Mendes as a filmmaker, but this is his first true misfire for me. The film just doesn't seem to have much to say about war, or doesn't know what it wants to say -- whatever the case, it is a very dramatically flat experience. This HD DVD is only a marginal upgrade in terms of video and audio quality over the standard DVD release, though we do get all of the supplements from the two-disc standard DVD release but for $5 cheaper. So diehard fans of the film may want to consider picking it up, but for all others, 'Jarhead' is best left as a rental.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.