If “John Adams” was something of an expensive misfire, HBO nails the target with “Generation Kill” — a raw, gritty, so-real-you’ll-forget-it’s-drama miniseries from “The Wire’s” David Simon and Ed Burns. Adapting Evan Wright’s first-person account of being embedded with Marines when the Iraq invasion began perfectly suits Simon’s journalistic background, with the mini providing fly-on-the-wall perspective of bureaucratic foul-ups and their impact on frontline grunts. This technically superior project intriguingly mirrors territory the producers explored in tackling Baltimore’s mean streets, and while Baghdad’s avenues are even meaner, the producers’ impeccable craftsmanship is roughly the same.
The mini encompasses the war’s first 40 days; each episode of the seven-part miniseries lasts more than an hour and is replete with bawdy, locker-room humor; an overflowing cast (the production notes list 52 characters); and absorbing, tension-filled action sequences — especially those mounted at night and seen through night-vision lenses.
The one quibble is that individual characters remain difficult to distinguish, buried as they are beneath so much gear and helmets. Still, after a few episodes, that matters less and less, as viewers get to know the Marines of the First Recon unit, who refer to themselves only half-jokingly as “America’s pit bull” — in that “Once in awhile, they let us out to attack somebody.”
Faithfully drawing from Wright’s book, Simon and Burns create crude poetry out of the Marines’ expletive-laden banter — filled as it is with homoerotic jabs, vulgar dissertations on geopolitics (one particularly hilarious monologue concerns the role of sex in screwing up the world) and disdain for higher-ups.
At the center of these exchanges are the smartass Ray (James Ransone), a sort-of poet laureate of Marine philosophy, and Brad (Alexander Skarsgard), his patient if occasionally equally crass sergeant. Deployed in the war’s first wave, they’re assigned Rolling Stone reporter Wright (“Oz’s” Lee Tergesen), whom they promptly dismiss as a “dope-smoking peacenik writer.” The scribe makes the mistake of showing the Marines a picture of his girlfriend that’s subjected to every indignity imaginable. The response is equally colorful and unrefined when the self-proclaimed Devil Dogs encounter a female soldier in a later episode.
Once the shooting starts, a chaotic, claustrophobic vision of war ensues (much of it from inside a Humvee), displaying the ease with which soldiers can come to view the enemy and even the civilian population of “Hajis” as something less than human. The sly wit, meanwhile, persists throughout, as Marines engage in singalongs to kill time, and one yells “Vote Republican” to waving Iraqis.
Although similar in scope, execution and macho camaraderie to “Band of Brothers,” HBO’s foray into WWII’s European theater, this is clearly a much different conflict, conveyed without a trace of sentimentality. As a consequence, the material hews closer to FX’s laudable “Over There,” which also sought to present the Iraq war through soldiers’ eyes (as well as spouses back home) but in hindsight suffered for coming too close to the war’s onset.
By contrast, this show’s tight focus on those few weeks and added distance from 2003 provide a stark microcosm of where the war planners erred, from the unit launching its invasion with only one available interpreter to incompetent officers whom the Marines fear are more perilous to their safety than Saddam Hussein’s army.
Writers Simon and Burns (and directors Susanna White and Simon Cellan Jones) engender sympathy toward the warriors without flinching from the innocent lives taken under the ever-fluctuating ROE, or Rules of Engagement.
War fatigue has already been blamed for dwindling news coverage from Iraq and tepid box office performance by several related movies, which perhaps fostered a queasiness that led HBO to schedule the series in a fallow part of the TV calendar — 10 months removed, alas, from the next round of Emmy consideration.
Separate from all the political platitudes delivered about “supporting the troops,” though, “Generation Kill” offers a chance to see those troops in their full, unfettered, foul-mouthed glory. And like the intractable drug war that Simon and company waged on “The Wire,” it is, indeed, a sight to behold.