- Directors: Sam Mendes
- Producers: Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher
- Writers: Timothy Lam, Anthony Swofford
- Genres: Biography, Drama, War
- Actors: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black, Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper
The film begins with voice-over narration on a black screen, as Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), waxes philosophically about a soldier whose hands forever remember the grip of a rifle, whatever else they do in life. Swofford is then shown in a U.S. Marine Corps boot camp, being brutalized by a drill instructor in a scene reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket. After finishing boot, “Swoff” is dispatched to Camp Pendleton in 1989, where he is subjected to a cruel joke played on him by the senior Marines. This involves branding onto him the initials of the United States Marine Corps, USMC, with a hot iron. This is a popular tattoo amongst Marines. He faints upon sight of the iron. After regaining consciousness, he is greeted coolly by Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), who says to him, “Welcome to the Suck.”
Swofford comes across the charismatic Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), a Marine “lifer” who invites Swofford to his Scout Sniper (formally the Surveillance and Target Acquisition) course. After arduous training sessions that claim the life of one recruit, he becomes a sniper and is paired with Troy as his spotter. Shortly after, Kuwait is invaded by Iraq and Swofford’s unit is dispatched to the Persian Gulf as a part of Operation Desert Shield. Although the Marines are very eager to see some combat action, they are forced to hydrate, wait, patrol the nearby area and orient themselves to the arid environment. When some field reporters appear, Sykes forces his unit to demonstrate their NBC suits in a game of American football, even under the 112 degree heat. While the cameras roll, the game develops into a rowdy dogpile, with some Marines playfully miming sex acts. Sykes, embarrassed by his platoon’s rude manners and poor discipline, removes the cameras and crew from the area; the Marines are later punished by being forced to build and take down a massive pyramid of sandbags in a rainy night.
On returning home the troops parade through the towns in a jovial celebration of victory. The mood is disturbed when a disheveled Vietnam veteran, possibly suffering from the memories of the conflict, jumps into their bus, and congratulates them all. Soon after their return home, Swofford and his comrades are discharged and go on with their separate lives. Swofford returns home to his girlfriend, but discovers her with a new boyfriend. Fowler (Evan Jones) is seen to be spending time with a girl at a bar, very likely a prostitute, Kruger (Lucas Black) is seen in a corporate boardroom, Escobar (Laz Alonso) as a supermarket employee, Cortez (Jacob Vargas) as a father of three kids, and Sykes continuing his service as a Master Sergeant in Operation Iraqi Freedom. An unspecified amount of time later, Swofford learns of Troy’s death during a surprise visit from Fergus. He attends the funeral, meets some of his old friends, and afterwards he reminisces about the effects of the war.