So let's actually do a coin flip ... and it's tails: Gyllenhaal goes first.
There was a time, not so long ago, when he was thought of as a poor man's Tobey Maguire. But that's sure not the way things are playing out. I'll take nothing away from Maguire. He's becoming a good, solid Hollywood actor, at ease in the leads of films as different as Pleasantville, Spider-Man and Seabiscuit. But Gyllenhaal, from the start, has been tearing up the independent film route: laid back in October Sky, pretty darn weird in Donnie Darko, quietly effective in Proof and yeah, OK, not very compelling in his big budget vehicle, The Day After Tomorrow.
Here he's Swoff Swofford, an aimless fellow who isn't getting on all that well with his girlfriend, is constantly reminded of his father's Marines stint in Vietnam and who enlists because there's not much else for him to do. He plays Swoff as quiet, kind of reserved, but as tightly wound as the other members of his platoon of Marines -- or jarheads -- who don't really know what they've gotten themselves into. They can all cheer and whoop it up while watching Apocalypse Now before shipping off to the desert, but once they get there, the fun and games are minimal. It becomes more of a game of waiting and wondering when the fighting might start. It's by far Gyllenhaal's most demanding and complex role, mainly because, unlike in Darko, he has to remain recognizably normal in an abnormal situation.
Now, on to the film's British director. Sam Mendes, formerly working in theater, had only made two feature films before this one: American Beauty and Road to Perdition. And it's very easy to say that the new one is as different in every way from those two as they were from each other. He does again focus on a small group of people -- Jarhead never veers very far from the doings of Swoff's group of soldiers -- yet this time, there's less of a proper story being told. This is more of a study of young men who are waiting for something to happen. None of them appears to be there against his will, but it's obvious that they want more out of their experience than just their assigned mission of protecting oil wells.
Rather than present a typical war movie -- or even a typical anti-war movie -- Mendes, along with screenwriter William Broyles Jr., who based this on the Anthony Swofford memoir, forgets the politics of war. He gets deep inside the heads of his soldiers, telling and showing what they're going through, thinking about, reacting to.
And there's plenty of character to go around. Jamie Foxx plays a staff sergeant as a man who does what he knows he must do, even if it's not what he knows he should do; Evan Jones gives his Fowler a crazed look and attitude; Peter Sarsgaard (Kinsey, Garden State) is simply remarkable as Troy, an obviously disturbed man who doesn't try very hard to hide it. But it's pretty clear that something is being hidden. The brilliance of his performance is that he hardly even speaks in the film's first half, letting his expressive eyes do most of his talking and explaining. Later, when he does open up verbally, he shows a whole different side. Keep watching this guy in the future.
There are also brief, but big and brash appearances by the always great Chris Cooper as a Lieutenant Colonel and Dennis Haysbert (24) as another commanding officer.
There are lots of odd things going on in this film. Many of them are quite funny, though often they quickly turn sober. And it's just a little too strange to hear someone talking about constantly rising oil prices and the fact that President Bush is sending more and more troops over to the desert -- then realizing that that person is referring to the first President Bush, and that this is about what was initially called "Operation Desert Shield."
The message at film's end is loud and clear and, presciently speaking, ominous: "We did our job -- we never have to come back here again." I wonder if those Marines are reading today's newspapers.