For his third feature film, British director Sam Mendes (AMERICAN BEAUTY) turns to the pages of Anthony Swofford's 2003 book on his experiences in the first Gulf War, and enlists William Broyles Jr.--a former Lieutenant who fought in Vietnam--to convert it into a screenplay. Mendes's film strays into FULL METAL JACKET territory as it opens, with young recruit Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) undertaking some rigorous basic training under the steely, watchful eye of Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx). Impressed, Sykes invites Swofford to join his team, and partners him with Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), ultimately taking them to Saudi Arabia to fight in the first Gulf War. But once they arrive in the punishing heat of the desert, the long wait for battle sends many of the Marines dangerously close to the brink of insanity.
Drawing on the experience of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION) to help viewers get a close-up taste of the Marines' punishing life in the desert, Mendes's film enters into deeply unsettling territory, the likes of which many cinemagoers won't have experienced since Martin Sheen lost his tenuous grip on reality in APOCALYPSE NOW. Indeed, Mendes deploys a few similar tactics to those that made Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film so effective: a hip soundtrack that uses songs from artists as varied as Public Enemy and the Rolling Stones, and a feeling of disillusionment and futility among the troops that really digs in when the battle finally blackens the desert skies. Avoiding any overt antiwar sentiments, Mendes instead provides a thoughtful account of life as a modern day soldier, demonstrating how technology has made the average Marine's job all but redundant, and created disaffected troops who are as much a threat to each other as the enemies they wait to face in the trenches.