The Waiting Game

Columbus Alive | November 3, 2005
As the country began its march toward the current quagmire in Iraq, former Marine Anthony Swofford published a best-selling memoir of his experiences during the Armed Forces’ first trip to the Gulf. Not surprisingly, the timing begged comparisons between what he saw in 1991 and the war that was looming, and with the number of dead soldiers in Iraq now rising steadily, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) should expect much of the same for his film adaptation.

But the story stays specific to the conflict, or the lack of conflict, in Gulf War I. Considerably bulked up, Jake Gyllenhaal is Swofford, a smart ass who earns a beating from his drill instructor for saying he ended up in the Marine corps because “I got lost on my way to college.” A good soldier nonetheless, Swofford is paired with bunkmate Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) in an elite training program for snipers, run by God-and-corps-loving Staff Sergeant Sick (Jamie Foxx in another smooth, intense performance).

When they’re deployed to the Kuwaiti desert, the unit trains and continually hydrates. And the soldiers wait, then wait some more, whipped into a bloodthirsty frenzy by their commanders, the constant threat of combat, their favorite war movies (Apocalypse Now practically starts a riot) and a photo gallery of the women who grew tired of their own waiting back home. When the battle does begin, massive air strikes make the snipers superfluous.

With too much time with their thoughts and their untapped aggression, some soldiers are bound to go a little nuts. While the performances of Gyllenhaal, Sarsgaard and several of their co-stars are effective (especially a grown up Lucas Black, the kid from Sling Blade), Mendes doesn’t conjure much desperation in the air around them.

What he fails to deliver in atmosphere, however, he tries to makes up for with surreal imagery—a charred corpse sitting upright, a stray horse covered by a rain of crude oil, and the burning wells of Kuwait, the second most memorable sight from Gulf War I after the questionable SCUD missiles.

Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. (Cast Away) choose to avoid commentary on the politics of either Iraqi conflict, but their portrayal of the first does raise a couple of relevant thoughts about the second. Given the amount of build up within the high-testosterone, built-for-combat military complex, with so little release during the four-day offensive in ’91, the current Gulf War seems inevitable. And there are worse things than waiting.

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Founded in 1983, Alive is the Capital City's oldest and only independent alternative and is known for providing a forum for the area's free thinkers. The paper's spirited and original perspective on music, arts and culture distinguish it from the...
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