British-born, Cambridge-educated Sam Mendes all but swept the Academy Awards with his first movie, 1999's tract-housing takedown American Beauty. He got only a fraction of that Oscar love for his second (2002's hit-man drama Road to Perdition), but he's already an Oscar-buzz totem for tackling yet another foreign-to-him topic: U.S. military culture. ''As long as the link between me and the central character is a strong one,'' he says, ''I feel like I can take on and understand any world.''
The source material is Anthony Swofford's account of his stint as a Marine sniper in the 1991 Gulf War. Published on the eve of the Bush Jr. push into Iraq in March 2003, Jarhead became an instant best-seller. By fall of that year, Douglas Wick (Gladiator) and his producing partner Lucy Fisher had hired screenwriter and ex-Marine William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13) to adapt, and Mendes signed on to direct by spring 2004. ''I was enthralled by the mixture of machismo, comedy, surrealism, [and] observation,'' he says. ''It was a war book like no other, about a war like no other, that could be a war movie like no other.''
Mendes looked at lots of under-30 recruits, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire reportedly among the Swofford candidates. But he settled on Jake Gyllenhaal after noting how muscular the 24-year-old actor looked in a London stage drama, This Is Our Youth. (Presumably he got beefy trying out for Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins.) Mendes drafted Jamie Foxx based on his work in Ali; the director says he hadn't seen Collateral or Ray when he hired the Best Actor winner. Peter Sarsgaard (Garden State, Kinsey) fit the bill as a sniper-squad leader. ''I've always been interested in war,'' Sarsgaard reports. ''My uncle died in Vietnam. My father was in the Air Force. My relatives always served in one way or another, and I think that probably informed who my character became.'' And what does he hope that his character will illuminate? ''Our dreams of what war is versus what it actually is...which is not something you hear people talking about.''