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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Jarhead (HD DVD)
Jarhead (HD DVD)
Universal // R // May 9, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Joshua Zyber | posted May 25, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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"Welcome to the suck."

The Movie:
In truth, Jarhead is just the latest in a long tradition of "War is Hell" movies about the dehumanizing effect of war on the young men lured into military life by romantic notions of serving their country. It really should be no more controversial than The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, or a dozen other famous movies in which initially idealistic boys go off to war expecting glory and come back changed, disillusioned men. By virtue of its timing and the parallels of its subject matter (the first Gulf War of 1991) with the current world situation, however, Jarhead struck a nerve with sensitive political types who labeled it unpatriotic, as if the act of questioning the need for war while one was happening were somehow treasonous. Of course, that's utter nonsense. Just because a movie doesn't act as a jingoistic morale booster for questionable political actions doesn't make it anti-American.

Based on a memoir by former Marine Corps sniper Anthony Swofford, the film follows the pattern of many war movies before it. Its greatest weakness, in fact, is that despite hot-button topicality the movie feels awfully familiar. It opens with a boot camp training sequence practically straight out of Full Metal Jacket (which may be unavoidable, as Marine boot camp is said to be exactly like that). A number of expected character types are introduced: the bully, the coward, the nerdy kid in glasses who doesn't belong, etc. Once things move to the Middle East and the soldiers find themselves waiting around for the promised action that doesn't seem like it will ever come, we're reminded of the edgier, more politically audacious Three Kings. Later scenes showing the surreal devastation left in the wake of combat echo Apocalypse Now. Jarhead isn't quite as good as any of those films, unfortunately, but has its share of artistic merits and ultimately carves a place for itself in the genre.

What the movie does especially well is depict the "hurry up and wait" nature of modern warfare. Trained to kill and relentlessly psyched up to prove their worth as real men on the battlefield, the Marines finally get to the desert and find themselves with nothing to do except pointlessly drill their procedures and wait for the excitement and danger they expected. As we now know, that particular war saw very little real combat and was over practically in a blink. Every time the ground troops are pressed forward towards the enemy, air strikes inevitably beat them to the engagement and leave the men on the ground to clean up the mess. Indeed, Swofford never fired a single shot. These soldiers were beaten and abused not by superior enemy forces, but by sheer boredom. And while that may sound awfully harmless, it took a real psychological toll on the men.

Directed by Sam Mendes, the film has a strong sense of artistic design that at times works against its favor. The film is a bit too artistic, feeling like an outsider's view and never really attaining the immediacy or emotional engagement of a picture like Platoon. As the soldiers struggle to find the point of the war they're fighting, the audience sometimes struggles to find the message of the movie. This is a story without a real conflict, and although that may be a deliberate decision it often leaves the movie feeling aimless and lacking motivation in its second half. Mind you, similar charges were leveled against Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, movies which proved themselves over time, but somehow Jarhead doesn't seem like it will ever earn that kind of status as a classic. It's a good picture, but falls short of being a great one.

The HD DVD:
Jarhead debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc specifically contains an optional DVD layer for Standard Definition playback) or in a Blu-Ray player.

Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.

Video:
The Jarhead HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 (it measures closer to 2.30:1 on my screen) with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame. Since HD is natively 16:9 in shape, the HD DVD format does not require anamorphic enhancement as used on DVD.

The movie has an almost blindingly bright photographic style, with blown out contrasts and bleached colors to evoke the harsh desert climate. It's actually quite beautiful in its way, but one side effect is that the image is usually rather flat without a lot of depth or dimensionality. This is intentional, of course. The picture is very sharp and detailed, with not even a hint of edge enhancement on even the sharpest of contrasts. Mild film grain is present, accurately rendered so that it doesn't look noisy. Black levels during the nighttime scenes are deep and rich, and colors can be quite vibrant when they're supposed to be (such as the deep reds and oranges of the oil fires). This is a very nice looking disc.

The Jarhead HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.

Audio:
The movie's soundtrack is encoded in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format, which offers higher bit rates than available with traditional Dolby Digital audio found on DVD.

The fidelity of this track is outstanding. The dialogue, narration, and sound effects are all crisply recorded. The musical score is extremely expansive and enveloping, with clear stereo dimensionality across both the front and rear soundstages. Bass is satisfying without being obnoxious or boomy. The sound mix is just terrific and the HD DVD delivers it exceptionally well. I can only imagine whether the lossless Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD audio formats that HD DVD also offers could be much better; if they do offer any potential improvement, it's probably slight.

Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English captions for the hearing impaired, Spanish, or French.
Alternate language tracks – French or Spanish DD+ 5.1.

Extras:
All of the bonus features from the 2-Disc Collector's Edition DVD have been carried over to the HD DVD. Although most are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression, the deleted and extended scenes are encoded in 720p High Definition with VC-1 compression. Unfortunately, all of these scenes were mastered from a poor-quality workprint and don't show much benefit from the higher resolution. Still, this is the first release to offer any bonus material in HD, and that's a notable achievement.

  • Audio Commentary by director Sam Mendes - An engaging and insightful discussion of the logistics of making a war movie and the reasons the director was drawn to the material.
  • Audio Commentary by screenwriter William Broyles Jr. and author Anthony Swofford - Another very good commentary, this time focusing on the writing (obviously) and military life.
  • Swoff's Fantasies - Deleted scenes, with optional commentary by Mendes and editor Walter Murch. Five very short fantasy sequences that were cut for good reason. They may have worked in another movie, but clearly do not integrate well into the rest of this film.
  • News Interview in Full - Extended scene, with optional commentary by Mendes and Murch. A 16 min. extension of the improvised news interview scene, which was condensed to just a few snippets in the movie.
  • Deleted Scenes (11) - With optional commentary by Mendes and Murch. Here we have about 19 more minutes of excised footage. All of these are actually quite good scenes, but were cut for reasons of pacing or structure.
  • Jarhead Diaries - With introduction by Sam Mendes (30 min.). Instead of the usual EPK promo piece, Mendes gave his cast their own video cameras and asked them to document their military training and life on a film set. If not exactly groundbreaking, this is a better-than-average look at the actors' process and the grueling hardships of making a movie in the middle of the desert.
  • Background - With introduction by Mendes (30 min.). A very fascinating documentary about life as a movie extra. Many of the background performers in this movie were actual former military personnel and helped to bring a greater sense of realism to the production.
  • Semper Fi: Life After the Corps - With audio introduction by Anthony Swofford (35 min.). A very emotional look at a soldier's life after war, including the difficulty of reintegrating into society and the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
No interactive features have been included.

Final Thoughts:
Jarhead may not rise to the level of the great war movie classics, but it's a worthwhile effort with strong performances from the cast and a few ideas on its mind. The HD DVD has very nice High Definition picture quality, great audio, and a better-than-average assortment of interesting bonus features. Recommended.

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