The Iraq War miniseries “The Long Road Home” contains some sequences that are powerfully affecting. There’s often an arresting clarity to the way it depicts the taking or the saving of a life during battle — acts that can be strangely intimate, especially at close quarters. But like a soldier on a training course, you have to slog through a number of obstacles in order to reach the optimal terrain.
The eight-part miniseries is based on reporting by journalist Martha Raddatz: Her 2007 book of the same name chronicled the day three years earlier on which a small group soldiers from the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division were pinned down in Sadr City. In the scenes leading up to their departure for Iraq, it’s clear the soldiers and their officers expected relatively uneventful peacekeeping duties, as did their families.
Once in Iraq, division personnel weren’t even done unpacking their gear before things went wrong. Events continued to spiral as various convoys sent to save the initial platoon, which was pinned down, ran into bloody and effective opposition. Intelligent and well-intentioned officers kept making reasonable plans to save their troops, but each operation kept getting, as a grunt might say, FUBAR.
“The Long Road Home” often does an excellent job of putting the viewer into the boots of individual soldiers: What do you do when a child picks up a gun and points it at you? What happens after a truck full of mostly untested soldiers runs into engine trouble without any backup even remotely nearby? What’s it like to ride in a Humvee or a tank with the dead body of a soldier who had been joking around just an hour before? How does a soldier choose a decisive path forward when he is reeling from an onslaught of deaths and injuries around him?
In moments like those, “The Long Road Home” brings to mind generally superior (and more expensive) dramas such as “The Pacific,” “Band of Brothers” and “Generation Kill.” The difference between this NatGeo production and those HBO dramas is that in “Long Road,” many of the protagonists — all those young and frightened or older and grizzled faces beneath the helmets — are not often all that well-defined, either before or during the battle. Characterization is not the strong suit of “The Long Road Home,” but the actors do their level best, and directors Phil Abraham and Mikael Salomon excel at depicting the camaraderie of the soldiers as well as the chaos that envelops them at several key moments.
But “The Long Road Home” could have trimmed its overlong running time by cutting out all the home-front storylines. The desire to incorporate scenes of military families going through the worst stress of their lives is a laudable one. But in those scenes, the miniseries’ clunky, cliche-ridden dialogue is uninterrupted by flying bullets or life-or-death decisions.
At times, “The Long Road Home” comes very close to coming off as propaganda, for either the Army or a narrowly defined vision of America. A scene of a wife at home sewing a 1st Division flag while swelling music plays could have had real psychological impact, had the drama’s non-combat moments developed any kind of sustained depth. Unfortunately the scenes set at Fort Hood are generic at best and predictable at worst.
And though the limited series makes some attempts at addressing what it might have felt like for Iraqis to live through the invasion and the subsequent waves of bloodshed, the locals are not fully developed as characters. That said, very few individuals in this narrative are.
Where the miniseries excels is in depicting the details of logistics and bravery, matters that are often intimately connected, at least for those making snap decisions on the front lines. Time after time, soldiers have to improvise solutions and come up with creative defense strategies when they are put in unexpected and terrifying situations. Lt. Col. Gary Volesky (Michael Kelly) and Capt. Troy Denomy (Jason Ritter) have to keep their cool, no matter what happens, and Kelly and Ritter do solid work in those roles. Of particular note is the consistently good work of E.J. Bonilla, who plays platoon leader 1st Lt. Shane Aguero, who was thrust into a leadership role that he never anticipated and who unhesitatingly stepped up in any number of ways.
Limited series; 8 episodes (4 reviewed); Tues. Nov. 7, 8 p.m. 60 min.
Executive producers, Mike Medavoy, Mikko Alanne, Jason Clark, Benjamin Anderson, Edward McGurn.