Grim and spare, “Occupation” begins with harrowing scenes of a British unit during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and closes with an equally gripping, chaotic, tragic final act that finds the soldiers back in the war-torn country. What transpires in between proves uneven, and suffers in part thanks to its similarity to the numerous features and TV projects (see HBO’s “Generation Kill”) that have already explored similar terrain. Pulling few punches in conveying the lingering misfortune and corruption associated with the Iraq adventure, BBC America will air this finely acted two-parter in one four-hour burst.
Writer Peter Bowker (“Viva Blackpool”) traces the war and its aftereffects through the experiences of three soldiers: Mike (“Jekyll’s” James Nesbitt), who returns to the U.K. and promptly falls for an Iraqi doctor (Lubna Azabai), which inspires him to sign up for another tour; Danny (Stephen Graham), who becomes a well-paid mercenary; and Hibbs (Warren Brown), who genuinely yearns to assist the Iraqi people.
There’s not much subtlety in Bowker’s view of the situation’s hopelessness, which keeps circling back thematically to the epic of Gilgamesh and the poetic line, “What you seek you will never find.” For Mike — easily the best of three story arcs — the war’s aftermath includes fracturing his marriage and seeing his son follow him into the military.
As for Danny, his operations mirror the sordid profiteering by military contractors in a country where, as he says, the people “can’t stop killing each other” and there’s “no right,” just “wrong and wronger.”
For all its strengths, though, there are some structural flaws. Moving back and forth between the home front and Iraq blunts some of the drama, and the pic suffers whenever the brooding Nesbitt is offscreen, which occurs for extended stretches.
Ultimately, Bowker appears determined to encapsulate the war through these personalized experiences, but even at roughly three hours sans commercials, that’s considerable ground to cover in the time. And despite his insistence in the press notes that he had no political agenda, there are moments when the “message” light clearly seems to be lit.
Those deficiencies notwithstanding, as directed by Nick Murphy, the production is impeccably done, and there’s ample tension and gritty realism in the war sequences. The supporting cast is also strong, with Igal Naor (who played Saddam Hussein in HBO’s “House of Saddam”) as a principled Iraqi doctor and Nonso Anozie as Danny’s amoral partner in crime.
There’s been no shortage of drama tied to the fallout from Iraq and the war’s lamentable toll. While “Occupation” adds to that filmography, it doesn’t do quite enough to improve it.