"Generation Kill" pulls off the Iraq War story

Dave Simon and Ed Burns turn their attention from Baltimore to Baghdad with Generation Kill

It doesn't seem like it's time yet to be watching television and films about the Iraq War for entertainment, does it? It is, after all, still dragging on, and if the electronic media weren't mostly mirroring the inevitable fatigue many home-front Americans feel, we could watch the real thing on the news every night. And even casual film fans know the lore that it took years for Hollywood to be able to handle the Vietnam War with anything like success; the feeble first attempts to make Iraq War features have kept audiences away in droves and made such distance seem like a necessary rule. Perhaps that's why one of the most well-made and timely television productions of 2008 seemed to land without a sound, with little water-cooler chatter to its credit and no serious media buzz to its name. The recent DVD release of Generation Kill offers a chance to put this situation right.

On paper, Generation Kill has everything going for it. It's based on the 2004 best-seller of the same name, which in turn is based on the reporting of Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone correspondent who got himself embedded with the elite U.S. Marines' First Reconnaissance Battalion and spent the first weeks of the war bonding with the men of Bravo company at the far front lines as U.S. forces pushed over the Kuwaiti border and on toward Baghdad. Just as key, David Simon and Ed Burns, the creators of HBO's critically hosanna-ed series The Wire, settled on Wright's book as their first post-Wire project, bringing their tough-minded, ambitious storytelling to material worthy of it.

Indeed, Generation Kill has much in common with The Wire. The war that Wright (Oz' Lee Tergesen) experiences centers on the Humvee he rides in, which is commanded by Sgt. Brad Colbert (charismatic Alexander Skarsgard) and driven by Cpl. Ray Person (James Ransone, aka Ziggy from season two of The Wire), whose endless exchange of information, orders, jokes, and shit-talk stands in for the establishing banter of McNulty and Bunk. And just like the cops and drug dealers on The Wire, the men of First Recon are forever at the literal mercy of their politicking superiors, from the hulking, dim-witted company commander known behind his back as Encino Man (Brian Wade) on up to the raspy-voiced battalion commander (Chance Kelly), call sign Godfather, who is forever throwing his Marines into specious, sometimes ill-conceived missions in his attempts to impress the brass and "get in the game."

The game, in this case, has stakes even higher than the criminal investigations and drug-gang coups of Simon and Burns' calling-card series. Above the brass sit the war's planners, who have put the soldiers and the Iraqis they encounter in harm's way with even less thought for the outcome. As the Recon battalion proceeds north, they are ordered not to fire on obvious hostiles in civilian clothes and then ordered not to take prisoners who may be killed for offering to surrender. They itch to get in the fight but also find themselves appalled at the wanton waste of innocent life, at the hands of other units and their own. Meanwhile, Generation Kill captures the undeniable thrill of combat, but also its terror and senselessness, not to mention the boredom and discomfort that makes up the hours between cordite-fueled adrenaline spikes.

The scripts (penned by Simon, Burns, and Wright) are a marvel, the cast of unknowns deep and fine, and the forward momentum of the plot would be hard to surpass, but there are some obvious reasons Generation Kill failed to set premium cable afire during its initial run. As with The Wire, Simon, Burns, and company make few allowances for viewers who need hand-holding, and that can be especially tough in a story jammed with untranslated military lingo. (The English subtitles on the discs are a godsend.) Add in the fact that the story concerns dozens of guys who all dress and talk alike on purpose, and it can take a few episodes to feel like you know where you are and who you're with. But when the Recon Marines finally arrive in a conquered Baghdad, they, and the viewer, can see the roots of the current intractable conflict already planted firmly in the dusty ground, despite the bravery and best intentions that brought them that far. That's something we can all stand reminding about.