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War is hell, but it’s the waiting that kills you. Jake Gyllenhaal as Anthony Swofford, a Marine sniper ordered to fight the first war in the Persian Gulf by staying in constant readiness for a shot that never comes. It’s the best acting Gyllenhaal has ever done (and he triumphs in the upcoming Brokeback Mountain). Gyllenhaal is the heart and soul of a darkly intense and ferociously funny movie that sets its sights on soldiers under the gun of doing nothing. “It’s the waiting — that’s our life,” says Swoff.

If you’re thinking that boredom is a problematic subject for a war movie, you wouldn’t be wrong. Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) can’t always keep our minds from wandering either. What he does do, with unnerving honesty, is render a war of bombs and burning oil fields — the media mostly relied on aerial views — from the point of view of the ground soldiers eating the smoke and dirt.

That alone makes Jarhead unique. The spark is the source material, a memoir by Swofford who was twenty and full of piss and vinegar when he enlisted in the Marines in the summer of 1990 and shipped out to the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Swofford’s book was published much later, in 2003, when Gulf War 2, dubbed by the Bush administration as Operation Iraqi Freedom, further soured Swofford’s view.

Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles Jr., a former Marine, use chunks of narration to show Swoff’s change from innocent to skeptic. The film doesn’t need the editorializing. What it loses in velocity it makes up for with a greater sense of purpose. Mendes begins on familiar ground — the boot-camp scenes are right out of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. As the guys watch Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, they cheer the chopper attack on a Vietnamese village to the thundering sounds of Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries.” But when an enlistee complains that this war needs its own music, Mendes pulls out “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” to underscore the irony.

References to war movies, from Platoon to The Deer Hunter, fail to provide these Marines with an identity. They find it in the desert. “Welcome to the suck,” says Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), a Marine scout who will become Swoff’s spotter as they train to locate and terminate a target. The film finds time for the men who make up the Surveillance and Target unit, from Evan Jones as Fowler, the irritant in the group, to Lucas Black as Kruger, the rebel who won’t keep politics out of the equation as the others try to do. But it’s Sarsgaard, hiding his character’s secrets and his temper until he’s pushed too far, who delivers a performance of implosive brilliance. The sight of Troy shooting his gun impotently into the night air is meant to shake us. Sarsgaard makes damn sure that it does.

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And save an oo-rah for Jamie Foxx, the Ray Oscar winner who makes up for the stench of Stealth with a hard-nosed and surprisingly touching performance as Sgt. Sykes, the Marine lifer who whips these empty vessels (jarheads) into obedient slaves. In a trenchant scene, the sarge tells Swoff why he prefers war to his family’s drywall business. Foxx puts a human face on a cliche and tears you apart.

That’s Jarhead at its best, with the great cinematographer Roger Deakins using a hand-held camera to capture the look, the light and the texture of this desert storm, and the actors using everything in their arsenals to keep the story blunt and intimate. The porn tapes, the jerking off, the Christmas-party revel that nearly gets them killed are all a buildup to how these Marines can survive the crisis of inaction. Even when the script slips into sermonizing — a Swoff voice-over informs us that we’re all still “in the desert” — Mendes keeps invading us with emotions. The jolt of Jarhead is undeniable, and it comes when you least expect it.

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