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Review: Generation Kill (2008)

October 30th, 2009

I’m going to be playing a bit of catch-up, providing reviews of some of the TV series, movies and films I’ve watched over the past few weeks. As a reminder, I go through a lot as I watch ’em care of Netflix on my personal DVD player when working out on the elliptical at Equinox. Up in this post is Generation Kill.

Ed Burns and David Simon are two of my television heroes. Although I’ve not yet seen The Corner (their breakout 2000 drama), The Wire is the greatest series to ever appear on the telly. Generation Kill is the followup thereto.

The HBO miniseries is based on the 2004 book Generation Kill, written by Rolling Stone scribe Evan Wright. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Wright hitched a ride with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the US Marine Corps. During his two months with 1st Recon, he became ingrained with the troops and reported on Operation Iraqi Freedom and, more importantly, the soldiers who took part in it.

Burns and Simon took up the task of bringing Generation Kill to the small screen. Pairing again with the HBO team that helped bring The Corner and The Wire to fruition, the two moved from West Baltimore to West Baghdad in seven 70 minute episodes.

The series stars Alexander Skarsgård (as Sgt. Brad Colbert), James Ransone (as Colbert’s sidekick Cpt. Ray Person), Lee Tergesen (as the scribe, Wright), Jon Huertas (as ethnically confused Sgt. Antonio Espera), Billy Lush (as redneck Lance Cpl. James Trombley) and Stark Sands (as moral compass Lt. Nate Fick).

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The series is quite gripping in its storytelling, although the mores of a work about Iraqi Freedom is undoubtedly muddied by the lack of clarity on how history will view the war itself. As a result, any messages delivered are rendered uncertain. The series does make some effort to show the cost of war, but even with moral compass Lt. Fick, the justification for such costs is always present in the determined beliefs of the soldiers. Only in the final montage of images do Burns and Simon become overt with an anti-war message.

Leading up to the montage (a stylistic holdover from The Wire), the filmmakers only hint at any pacifist intent. This is more in line with their past work on The Wire, which I think of as a five part poem on the decline of the American Empire. I’m not sure to draw from Generation Kill, other than perhaps a negative commentary on our soldiers and their leadership. They revile the liberal point of view that is very much a part of Burns’ and Simon’s work. They tease Wright for that liberalism, while inviting him into their lives all the same. Whether it’s Colbert instructing local hajis to “Vote Republican” or the men dismissing Wright’s Rolling Stone work in favor of his penning “Beaver Hunt” for Hustler, the conflicted, conservative and undereducated personalities of the soldiers are only probing at the surface.

Ultimately, the miniseries does not provide a terribly deep examination of its subjects. Relating it back to The Wire, you get the same superficial level of character detail that we saw with Avon Barksdale or Marlo Stanfield, as opposed to the actual depth explored in characters like Jimmy McNulty, Michael Lee and Bubbles. You see them as they are, but not the paths that got them there.

The concentration that’s lost in a eight hour work is replaced immediately by the quick, witty pace of the dialogue and, to be honest, the familiar framework of the story telling. Thanks to FoxNews, CNN and MSNBC, we have a understanding of the war and, more importantly, the embed-journalist experience. That frame of reference prepares the audience for some of the more damning and graphic images, as well as providing the back story that’s required knowledge.

Generation Kill ultimately is a good and enjoyable watch. You laugh, are gripped and are genuinely caught up in the characters. You relate to them, even if the closest you’ve been to military service is pro bono work for soldiers at Fort Hamilton, as with me. This is not, however, a work of high art. It is a graphic novel and not a timeless classic. It doesn’t craft its own environment in which to operate, relying instead on the viewers familiarity with the milieu. For those reasons,it falls a bit short. But, for TV, it’s still pretty solid.

On my personal rating scale of one to ten miles (one being getting off the treadmill and ten being not noticing how tired I am), Generation Kill gets a seven. I’m tempted to bump it to an eight, but it’s just not The Wire. Also, the critical portrayal of marine leadership is just a bit over the top and too damning.

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