Friday, December 19, 2008

Generation Kill on DVD

David Simon and Ed Burn’s adaptation of Evan Wright’s Generation Kill depicts a much more critical view of the war than I originally imagined. Simon, during his Q&A at the National Press Club (NPC) a week before the premier, admitted they weren’t tasked to write from an Iraqi perspective and their primary goal was to translate the book to film as accurately and honestly as possible. This aggravated me at first, but the series is far more sophisticated than Simon let on. I’m not sure if he was holding back in that forum because the first episode hadn’t debuted yet.

If the name of the series puts you off, you’re not alone. Wright explained that kill is the mantra of the Marines. During his stint embedded with Bravo Company they chanted it day and night – literally repeating and repeating kill until it lost its meaning and became a reflex. This isn’t fleshed out in the series that well, but I can’t imagine how the creators would have pulled it off without being cheesy. Instead, they settled for a cheesy title.

Simon and Burns are experts at writing captivating characters, but it helps that they’re based off real people. Every member of the Second Platoon of Bravo Company is believable from the sublime (and sometimes estranged) Sergeant Brad 'Iceman' Colbert to the rambling, amphetamine popping Corporal Josh Ray Person played by James Ransone (Ziggy from The Wire). Person’s pop song singing and blathering about Marine culture are essential comic relief between civilian casualties and firebombed towns. Of course, race and class issues are addressed in classic Simon/Burns style, but this time through hyper masculine barbs aimed at other soldier’s shortcomings. This only adds to the realism.

I can’t say, from my own experience, that the series “feels real”. I’m a civilian trying to write about the war through interviews and research, but from what I’ve heard from the panel of Marines at the NPC is that the series is spot on. The soldier’s confusion and anxieties during battle and their aggravation when driving half blind at night are filmed in jarring Night Vision and you absolutely understand their frustration. As Simon and Burns illustrate, sometimes coping with the endlessly banal is just as hard as dealing with the occasionally fetal.

Much of Generation Kill is about waste and incompetence. In the first month of the war, no one really understood the Coalition’s stunning ability to squander resources. The seven hour series exposes the bureaucracy and abuses throughout the chain of command while focusing on the frustrations of the Marines trying to perform with integrity and courage. Supply trucks are abandoned. Batteries are scarce. And the men least worth of commendation are typically rewarded for their persistent mistakes.

By then end of the series, the Iraqi perspective is indeed heard. Roadside dead are left for stray dogs. Children are badly burned and orphaned. Upon entering Baghdad, newly homeless Iraqis beg for water, sewage removal, and protection from roving gangs of looters. Their suffering resonates louder as the viewer experiences it through the eyes of the soldiers – soldiers you’ve begun to care about in the few hours you’ve known them.

By the end of Generation Kill, you cringe when the Marines enter Baghdad celebrating the end of the war when it’s only April of 2003. Nearly six years later, this HBO series comes out of DVD just in time for families of Marines to buy it for the holidays. It might have taken a generation for soldiers to quote slogans from Apocalypse Now like, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” or whatever lines Kubrick lifted from Heart of Darkness – those clichés are shouted from the mouths of green Reservists and Replacements. This is where life imitates art and it’s the type of material that makes really good TV.

Operation Iraqi Freedom has gone on long enough for contemporary soldiers to begin adopting new slogans from movies about themselves, not their fathers. Maybe quoting themselves is exactly what the American public needs to hear.

1 comment:

Adam R. said...

Like in JARHEAD, when the one guy in the gasmask says to the other guy, a la Darth Vader, "Luke, I am your father," I wonder how many current soldiers have pulled that gag.

I want to see this. Good job.