Dir. Sam Mendes. US. 2005. 120mins.
Technically strong and well performed,the visually accomplished Jarhead isa complex, mournful meditation on war and its consequences that director SamMendes also manages to inject with a bracing emotional immediacy.

For Mendes himself it alsoanswers some of the criticisms he drew with RoadTo Perdition, regarded by some critics as being excessivelymannered and art directed. While Jarheadis not as fluid and spontaneous as the material requires, it still captureswith precision and visceral intensity the wanton self-destruction of war andthe romantic delusion that combat is somehow ennobling and self-sacrificing.

In the US - where Jarhead opens on Nov 4 - popular commercialsuccess is not a given, bearing in mind contemporary political actions in Iraqand the fact that it is neither an easy emotional release nor catharsisthough a pungent sense of loss and pain.

Yet despite the fractiousness of contemporary American attitudes towards the war, Jarhead still offers something for both ideological sides, celebrating the professionalism and courage of the soldiers though also questioning the underlying political and cultural roots of the current Iraq conflict.

It should enjoy strong reviews and continue to play through the coming holidays in the US. Given the strong cast and the recognition of the source material, Jarhead should also fare well on DVD and TV.

Internationally, particularly inEurope, wider audiences are more likely to respond to its political critique. This prestige Universalrelease should also draw awards attention during the coming season, especiallyin technical categories for cinematographer Roger Deakinsand editor Walter Murch.

The film is (mostly)faithfully adapted from Anthony Swofford's memoir abouthis experiences as a US Marine deployed in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during thefirst Gulf War.

From the boot camp sequencethat consciously echoes the opening movement of Stanley Kubrick'sFull Metal Jacket to the almostsexual response the soldiers have watching the helicopter attack sequence fromFrancis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now,Jarhead examines how movies, musicand popular culture shaped the popular imagination about the absurdities,madness and incomprehension of modern combat experience.

The proper story begins in1989, and the voiceover immediately establishes the uncertain tone andalienation of the sometimes narrator and protagonist, Swoff(Gyllenhaal). He's a third-generation enlistedsoldier, a brainy, tough kid who reads Camus and isattracted to the discipline and order imposed by the Marines.

Recruited into an elite sniperplatoon supervised by Sgt Sykes (Foxx), Swoff isgrouped with Troy (Sarsgaard) into a two-man unit andtheir team dispatched to the Gulf following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August1990.

Stationed in Saudi Arabia, the marines are indoctrinated into the feverish rhythms of desert warfare. The men are gripped with fear over the fighting capabilities of Saddam's Republican Guard units, and made nervous by Saddam's dehumanised tactics against ethnic Kurds in the indiscriminate deployment of chemical and biological weapons. Mendes uses a timeline to denote the growing troop movements and their time in the desert.

Mendes and screenwriterWilliam Broyles (a former Marine lieutenant in Vietnam) produce an accumulationof incident and detail that give the narrative a recognisable shape. In theeerie desert landscape, brutal extracts of the soldiers playing an Americanfootball game, or simply hanging out, offer observant, funny examples of malecamaraderie (the devilish, playful putdowns and sexual humiliation) and thesensation and thrill of battle, counterbalanced by the boredom and fatigue ofwaiting for something to happen."Are we ever going to get to kill somebody'" asks one soldier.

Visually, Jarhead's opening sections are clearlyinfluenced by the bleached-out imagery cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigeladopted for David O Russell's earlier Gulf War movie Three Kings (1999). Midway through, however, the movie shiftsstylistic registers with the launching of offensive US operations that turn thenight sky into a hellish phosphorescent glow, a gleaming, hallucinatorynightmare vividly illustrated by the burning Kuwaiti oil wells, recalling Werner Herzog's poetic documentary, Lessons Of Darkness.

Dramatically, not muchappears to happen in the movie, as Mendes opts to explore the silences betweenspaces, and Foxx and Sarsgaard are particularlyeffective at conveying the displaced male bravado.

Foxx has a key moment not in the book, a quiet, lyrical reflection on his deeply felt attraction to the culture of the Marines that amplifies and deepens his character. Sarsgaard is also fantastic, a live wire, cut on emotion, adrenaline and rage. A great performer in lower-profile features, here has a part and platform to finally receive his just due.

Gyllenhaal has the most difficult role to convey. His performance is less flamboyant, given to subtleties of movement and inflection, capturing the anguished, interior consciousness of Swofford's book.

Emotionally, Jarhead also turns in these closingpassages. The easily achieved coalition military objectives and crippling Iraqidefeat yield a much different historical construct, one of arrogance andmismanaged power, and these professional soldiers come to feel they have beendenied their own sense of who and what they are.

The final moments yield adifferent historical reality of pain and suffering as the feature ends with theobservation that "We are still in the desert".

Production companies
Universal Pictures
Neal Street Productions
Red Wagon Productions
Scamp Film And Theatre

US distribution
Universal Pictures

International distribution

William Broyles Jr from the book by Anthony Swofford

Executive producers
Bobby Cohen
Sam Mercer

Sam Mendes
Lucy Fisher
Douglas Wick

Roger Deakins

Walter Murch

Production design
Dennis Gassner

Thomas Newman

Main cast
Jake Gyllenhaal
Jamie Foxx
Peter Sarsgaard
Lukas Black
Chris Cooper
Dennis Haysbert
Brian Geraghty
Jacob Vargas
Laz Alonso
Evan Jones
Ivan Fenyo
Scott MacDonald
Kareem Grimes
Peter Gail
Jamie Martz
Jocko Sims