There are, arguably, only 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 and 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, "war" now 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 in 1080p/VC-1 video. (The transfer appears identical to the previously-released HD DVD version.) As with 'Ryan' and similar-looking films like 'Black Hawk Down,' 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's all rather bland.
Better are detail and sharpness. Though I initially found the old HD DVD lacking, revisiting the film again on Blu-ray I found the image more impressive, with a nice sense of depth. Blacks hold firm and contrast runs hot, which can result in some flatness, but overall this is a sharp transfer. There are also no problems with the encode, despite the 123-minute film confined to a BD-25 single-layer disc. 'Jarhead' looks good considering the material.
Universal has beefed up the audio on Blu-ray to DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-bit), which is superior to the Dolby Digital-Plus found on the HD DVD. This is still not a highly-immersive soundtrack, though it's good considering the material.
'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. Surrounds are opened up noticeably if not exponentially in DTS-MA, with more heft to discrete effects and slightly superior atmosphere and score bleed. I still was not wholly immersed, but the bump up to high-res audio is at least appreciable.
Dynamic range is about on par with the previous HD DVD. Low bass is supple and strong, and mid-range robust and warm. Dialogue is clear and distinct in the mix, with no balance issues. The source is as polished and slickly-produced as you would expect from a major A-list picture. 'Jarhead' isn't a stunner of a war movie mix a la 'Saving Private Ryan,' but it gets the job done.
'Jarhead' on Blu-ray is a disappointment in terms of supplements. The HD DVD came chock full of 'em, as it boasted all of the same materials found on the two-disc DVD edition. Sadly, Universal has nixed all of the video-based extras, leaving only the audio commentaries for the Blu-ray. There's no reason for the studio to have gone cheap (they could have easily upgraded this BD-25 single-layer disc to a BD-50 and included the supplements). Bah, humbug!
I expected more from 'Jarhead.' I've admired Sam Mendes as a filmmaker, but this is his first true misfire for me. The film either doesn't have much to say about war, or doesn't know what it wants to say -- it's a dramatically flat experience. This Blu-ray offers a decent video upgrade over the standard DVD, and better audio than the HD DVD, but the supplements are a big comedown, so it's a wash. If you already own the HD DVD, I'd say keep it. If you've been waiting to grab the film on Blu-ray, it's still a decent deal as long as you don't care much about the extras.
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.