Generation Kill: Premieres 9 p.m., Sunday, July 13, on HBO
Oorah: (left to right) James Ransone, Lee Tergesen, Stark Sands, Alexander Skarsgard, Billy Lush.
On the surface, you’ve seen everything here before, thanks to 50 years of war movies and, especially, the glut of Iraq war stories that have permeated both the big and small screens. A cross section of young American men awaiting to be sent into battle communicating in the military’s code-heavy argot that’s equal parts bravado and information-soaked. Lean, sinewy soldiers with buzz cuts and trim mustaches who name and talk to their weapons and give each other shit almost constantly. Armed, helmeted men in desert camouflage with high-tech gear cruising through a barren desert in an open Humvee.
It’s rather alarming at how familiar everything you see on screen is and how totally detached from it you feel. But something else is going on in Generation Kill, the seven-hour HBO miniseries that debuts this Sunday from The Wire co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns, and that something is a complex point of view and patient organizational movement through a military unit, the Marines’ 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, that embedded Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright followed during the 2003 invasion of the Iraq, which turned into a 2004 book of the same name.
It’s a storytelling approach that will be instantly familiar to Wire fans–Burns and Simon are the series’ principal writers–and to fans of Wright’s riveting books. Moments, scenes, and even dialogue lines come straight out of the book, which offers as unflinchingly sincere a portrait of soldiers’ day-to-day lives during an invasion as Burns and Simon’s The Corner offered of a drug-addled West Baltimore neighborhood. Two familiar faces from The Wire appear in the cast–James Ransone, Ziggy from season two, and, Benjamin Busch, who played Colicchio, the Western District officer with the hot temper–and veteran TV character actor Lee Tergensen (Oz, Homicide, TNT’s undersung Wanted) plays the embedded reporter. The rest of the cast is rounded out by relatively new faces.
You feel like very little takes place during the series’ first episode, and that’s what’s so sly about it. Generation Kill spends its first hour seemingly showing a Marine unit’s rank and file bored with waiting to invade a country, worried about the condition of the vehicles they’ll be riding in if they’re ever called upon to invade that country, and, in general, dicking around with each other when they’re introduced to the Rolling Stone reporter who will be riding with them–fresh meat to the camp whom they can haze and humor. It’s an episode that feels like a mere introduction to the proverbial cast of characters to be followed, familiar from so many war stories, and then the next thing you know the unit is finally given orders to roll into Iraq from Kuwait under cover of night as part of the invasion’s lead push, and the tone and storytelling doesn’t shift a beat.
It’s a narrative approach that’s keenly attuned to the book’s tone, which captured the mundane and the unbelievable of these soldiers’ lives with equal candor, and the series wisely follows suit. In the first five episodes made available to press, Generation Kill doesn’t cinematically try to normalize or heighten any of its moments, and yet a consistently inconsistent streak of anxiety runs through it. It’s an uneasy shadow that’s cast over the unit’s existence as they try to navigate situations in which most of them have never been in while operating under a chain of command that vacillates between incompetent and brash while preparing to confront an enemy–whom they don’t really have a visual description of–while outfitted with a single interpreter for their entire division. If you didn’t read Wright’s reporting, you’d be forgiven for thinking Simon and Burns were making it up.
TV and movie treatment of the Iraq War, though, has yet to find traction with a viewing public, a point that has already been raised in anticipation of Generation Kill‘s debut. What separates Generation Kill from its predecessors, from Steven Bochco’s Over There to Stop-Loss and even compelling documentaries such a Gunner Palace, though, is its time period–and the corresponding national attitude that accompanied it–which it establishes in this very first episode. The series itself covers the first 40 days of the 2003 invasion, but that fact doesn’t really sink in until a little over halfway into the first episode. And you slowly start to realize that all these familiar images–the desert camo, the Humvee convoys, the soldiers themselves–are taking place at a time before Abu Ghraib, before stop-loss entered the media cycle, before the overwhelming attitude of the American viewing public became one of fatigue. And Generation Kill is trying to put you in the position of the young men who first had to deal with this, the thing from which we’ve now become so detached. This series is a gamble not because it’s yet another televisual depiction of the ongoing situation in Iraq. It’s a gamble because it has the audacity to remind you that there are, according to GlobalSecurity.org, still approximately 162,000 men and women still deployed in this war–162,000 reasons why you still need to give a damn.