Jarhead is an excellent movie. Along with The Constant Gardener, it is a movie that rises to great heights, and in a weak year (still too early to tell) should be an Oscar contender.

Jarhead, the absurdist odyssey of one Gulf War marine, walks in the long shadow of many great war movies, especially those about Vietnam. It explicitly acknowledges Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, but it borrows most from Full Metal Jacket. It is not as good as those movies; but it is very good.

Read more about Jarhead (spoilers, I’m afraid)…Certain scenes are movie magic. A senseless death at training camp. An oil-covered horse emerging from flames and mist. A charred civilian caravan. A hate-collage of women who weren’t semper fi.

The directing, from Sam Mendes, is entirely solid, although he relies on some familiar supporting players: legendary editor Walter Murch (who cut Apocalypse Now) and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who does yeoman’s work, and should have a nomination locked up. Thomas Newman is credited with the score, but the early-90’s pop mix that composes 98% of the soundtrack is really the work of music supervisor Randall Poster. (Only one of Poster’s picks rang false: to me, “Fight the Power” is already too associated with Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.)

The acting is also solid. Jake Gyllenhall won’t be nominated for this movie (maybe for Brokeback Mountain, as the buzz goes) but passed the believability test. I went in not thinking I would buy him as a marine. I did. Point, Gyllenhall.

Jamie Foxx is once again excellent in a number-three role that everyone is now pretending is, since he got famous, a cameo. Peter Saarsgaard, whom I normally revere, registers all too little, giving his character’s end beat less poignance than it ought to have.

If anything, these fine actors are let down by one of my least favorite screenwriters, William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away), credited with the adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s memoir. The dialogue seems too conscious of its existence on film. “Welcome to the suck” can only wish it was “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Moreover, the characterizations never coalesce into human beings. One scene in particular, where Swofford goes nuts on a goggle-eyed Kansas kid, rings false, and takes the movie down a brief dark road where I’m sure many audience members remain stranded.

For all its meandering, the film is gripping up to that point, and sometimes gets good again (the journey into hell, especially). Where the script succeeds — and perhaps this is attributable to Swofford’s book — which is attributable to real life — is in laying bare the patent absurdity and the tedium of war, the adrenal rush of death’s shadow, and the vacant afterglow.

While the film never explicitly addresses the current Iraq war, it nonetheless can be read as a not-so-sly critique. Most war movies go out of their way to show the pointlessness and inhumanity of war. This movie adds a very vocal, politically-aware character who screams to deaf ears that the war is about oil, and that Saddam was propped up by the US. The government asks the Marines again and again to sign away their freedoms, including one scene of forced medication that raises the spectre of Gulf War syndrome. The final line of the movie rings with powerful double-meaning.

An excellent movie.