‘Generation Kill’ Offers Insider Look at the Iraq War

Chicago Sun-Times

July 12, 2008 – We have seen no shortage of films and television series about the war in Iraq.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. While there have been plenty made, getting viewers to see them has been something of a challenge. Much has been said, written, analyzed and talked about as to why. We’re war-weary. In tough times, we want escapism. With the war still under way, dramatic depictions hit too close to home.

All these points are valid. Until now.

If there’s any justice – granted, in television there isn’t much – ”Generation Kill,” HBO’s new miniseries from the people who created ”The Wire,” will be the one Iraq project that viewers finally latch onto. It’s riveting, entertaining, harrowing – all the things that should bring it a wide audience. And the people who made it couldn’t care less.

”We just make it for the people who were in it is I think a safe thing to say,” said Ed Burns, an executive producer. It’s not that ratings aren’t important. They’re just not important to him.

”I’m sure the HBO executives might be concerned about them, but I have no feeling for the numbers at all,” he said. ”If I did, ‘The Wire’ might have been different.”

Happily, he didn’t, and it wasn’t.

Burns and co-creator David Simon bring the same sensibility to the battlegrounds of Iraq that they brought to the mean streets of Baltimore – an unflinching look at lives lived and lost under incredible pressure that feels a lot like the truth.

”Generation Kill” follows the Marines of the First Reconnaissance Battalion during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It’s based on a book by Evan Wright, a reporter for Rolling Stone who was embedded with the Marines. He’s also a character in the miniseries, played by Lee Tergesen. Wright’s not exactly welcomed with open arms. But his previous employment helps win over the troops.

”Him writing for Hustler kind of gave him a little bit of street cred with us,” said Eric Kocher, the senior military adviser for the show, without a shred of irony.

”And then … he survived that first firefight with us and didn’t pack his bags and go home. He kind of became one of the guys. … He was taken in like another brother that was with us, and I think that’s why the reporting kind of came out the way it did.”

The Hustler bit is true, by the way.

”I noticed right away the Hustler thing had a galvanizing effect,” Wright said. ”It’s weird, because I spent my whole journalistic career with an inferiority complex with the New York Times. They (soldiers) couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the New York Times.”

The miniseries begins with First Recon’s Bravo Company training while awaiting word to invade Iraq. Among the chief concerns, in addition to the obvious – not getting killed when the fighting starts – are things like the obsession by Sgt. Major Sixta (Neal Jones) with the soldiers shaving their mustaches.

A rumor that Jennifer Lopez might have died has an oddly dispiriting effect, as well. It’s details like that that make ”Generation Kill” so compelling. We see the men shifting their fear to other things because of the greater fear looming in the desert.

But what the men want – what they really want, what they have trained and worked and honed themselves for – is to kill. It’s what they do, or at least what they want to do. Sitting around doing not much of it goes against their nature.

It’s an existence beyond political force; indeed, except for the portrayal of senior officers as rigid and dumb – a depiction as old as war itself – ”Generation Kill” is not a political work. That’s appropriate, Kocher said, because that’s what it was like when he was fighting there.

”Nobody really cared about the politics back home,” he said. ”You’re in a war, and I could kind of see for myself we were over there to do what we thought was a good thing, you know, and we were happy to be a part of it. Our whole purpose over there was mission accomplishment.”

Wright, too, said the series avoids politics.

”In other movies, I think the troops sort of served as vehicles for a particular agenda that the filmmakers have,” he said. ”We didn’t have that.”

As the miniseries begins, the soldiers blend together, but over the course of the first couple of episodes, individual personalities develop. The Godfather – Lt. Col. Ferrando (Chance Kelly), so known because throat cancer has left him with a rasp – emerges as an opportunistic commander who refers to himself in the third person, yet does not operate wholly without reason.

The Iceman, Sgt. Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard), is perhaps the most compelling figure, though as in any worthy ensemble, that status changes somewhat from episode to episode. He seems almost above the craziness, somewhat bemused by war, until circumstances change his outlook and temperament.

Cpl. Josh Ray Person (James Ransone) is a nonstop talker, hilarious, wired, while Lance Cpl. James Trombley (Billy Lush) is a rube whose expert marksmanship doesn’t make up for his poor decision-making.

Those are just a few of the characters; the cast is huge, and the interaction is fascinating. As with ”The Wire,” Burns and Simon remain masters of dialogue, getting every word just right. When two soldiers see the borderline nut case Captain America (Eric Nenninger) – a real captain – firing at imaginary enemies and one says, ”Can you believe that (expletive) is in charge of people?” the mix of humor, frustration and danger sounds and feels perfect.

Part of this is thanks to Wright’s book. He was there, in the Humvees, taking fire with the soldiers – just as scared as they were.

”Oh yeah, I was scared all the time,” Wright said. ”When you’re bouncing and there’s a lot going on, you can’t take notes. But actually, I found when there was stillness, but it was still a scary situation … taking notes actually helped me focus, and actually gave me something to do so I wouldn’t go crazy with fear.”

Also giving ”Generation Kill” authenticity is the luxury of the miniseries, the luxury of time. Perhaps that’s what will win ”Generation Kill” an audience. More to the point, perhaps the necessary lack of a leisurely pace is what’s kept audiences away from some of the big-screen Iraq projects, as well as TV shows like Steven Bochco’s ”Over There,” which folded after a single season.

Or maybe it’s something else.

”There’s almost a shame we feel because we’re living on two parallels,” Burns said. ”There’s a war on one street and America on another street, and we’re not meeting up.”

Kocher agreed.

”I think most of America has kind of become numb to it,” he said. ”I mean, it’s the same thing – where are all the yellow flags on the cars? You saw them big in the beginning of the war, but with America’s attention-deficit disorder, they lost interest in it and now they don’t want to see it anymore.”

Kocher figures the realism of ”Generation Kill” might change that.

”A lot of these things are kind of overdramatized, for one thing,” he said. ”Everybody kind of either is a hero or, I think … kind of the opposite, being anti-war. Some people don’t agree with me, but there were really no heroes in ‘Generation Kill.’ It’s just guys over there doing what they do best. And this series kind of just stays true to that.”

It does, and is all the richer for it. ”Generation Kill” is that rare event, a series that viewers not only should see, but one that they’ll want to, as well.

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