Adapting Anthony Swofford's profane, lyrical and searingly honest memoir of his disposable contribution to Operation Desert Storm was always going to be a tough task. For starters, nothing much actually happens, at least on the surface. Swofford is trained, conditioned, stripped of humanity. He's sent to the Arabian desert to eat and shit sand while he waits for the war to begin - and then it's over before it's begun. "Four days, four hours, one minute. That was my war," mutters the voiceover, Jake Gyllenhaal spiking Swofford's incredulity with regret, bitterness and righteous anger.
The inaction, of course, is very much the point, and in the book (Jarhead: A Soldier's Story Of Modern War) it gives the astute, eloquent author plenty of space to ruminate. Flip-flopping between past, present and future, Swofford allows us access to the private moments that shaped him, tenderly revealing how his alienating homelife and elegiac teen romances broke down his being, ready for it to be poured into the Marine mould - to be set firm and strong. He then shows how the Gulf War, swift as it was, chiselled at that proud, resolute cast, sending spidery cracks through the thick plaster skin into his heart and soul.
It's always tough to transfer dialogue-heavy prose to screen, and these filmmakers have struggled but slumped. Rightly refusing to resort to incessant voiceover (Gyllenhaal's musings are employed sparingly) or whiplash-inducing flashbacks and flashforwards, director Sam Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles Jr are left with no choice but to allow much of the novel's richness to slip through their fingers. And while they work hard to find visual and aural equivalents for Swofford's poetic, provocative text - Roger Deakins' bleached visuals; Walter Murch's abstract sound editing, by turns deafeningly silent and quietly thunderous; Bobby McFerrin's 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' employed as an ironic anthem - they never quite manage to climb inside Swoff's head as effectively as crisp page after crisp page of internal monologue.
Technically, Jarhead is faultless. Consider each scene individually and you have a movie crammed with indelible visuals, from Swoff's sniper platoon playing football in gas masks to a band of trigger-itchy snipers inching forward to confront eight Arabs in the shimmering desert to the strangely beautiful sight of oil wells burning under a blood-red sky ("The Earth is bleeding!" gasps Swofford). Put those very same scenes together, however, and you have an existential drama-cum-absurdist-comedy that's both flabby and undernourished, turning ever-decreasing circles in the sand.
It's not the acting - Gyllenhaal does what he can with the stripped-down script and Jamie Foxx (hard-assed Staff Sergeant Sykes) and Peter Sarsgaard (best friend, the scout to Swoff's sniper) both impress, the former brazen and bristly, the latter inscrutable and introspective. It's not even the unshakeable feeling of déjà vu, Mendes excusing his cribbing by making it clear these 'Jarheads' went to war expecting to play out The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Platoon.
It's more the vague atmosphere of befuddlement and boredom that permeates the action: in trying to make a film about these emotions, Mendes has allowed his movie to become them. How to escape such a yawning trap? By being sharper, smarter, angrier, funnier... by refusing to slip rubber caps over the book's glinting spikes. In the book, Swoff cheers the chopper attack in Apocalypse Now and then admits he wants a piece of the action - to rape, pillage and burn. In the film, he cheers the chopper attack, and, while the implication is there, the extent of his savagery is muted.
And while Mendes had no option but to jettison much of the prose, you have to wonder why he chose to show the post-football-match abuse of a jarhead named Kuehn - the platoon queuing up for a playful dry-hump - but omitted the commentary. "We aren't field-fucking Kuehn," writes Swofford. "We're fucking the press-pool colonel and the sorry, worthless MOPP suits and the goddamn gas masks and canteens with defective parts and President Bush and Dick Cheney and the generals and Saddam Hussein..." The list goes on, taking in girlfriends, parents, CNN, "fuckhead peaceniks", fraudulent '60s idealism, recruiters, skate punks, labour unionists... and themselves, for signing the goddamn contract.
This should have been Jarhead's defining soliloquy, its "Choose Life" chant. Instead, it's consigned to the wastepaper basket, replaced by the nagging feeling that Hollywood didn't have the balls to be so overtly political given the current climate. Shame.