Thursday, June 11, 2009

On DVD: "Generation Kill"

How do you top one of the greatest series in television history? If you’re David Simon and Ed Burns, you apparently get right back to work. Less than four months after HBO aired the final episode of their epic American crime series The Wire, the network debuted Generation Kill, a seven-part mini-series that the duo wrote with Rolling Stone scribe Evan Wright. The series was based on Wright’s book, which chronicled his time embedded with the First Reconnaissance Battalion of the United States Marine Corp during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Wright’s up-close-and-personal narrative proved an ideal vehicle for Simon and Burns’ straightforward writing; their scripts for Generation Kill are in much the same no-nonsense style as their previous show. The first episode features little preparation and no proper introductions—we get to know the characters throughout the series, and our impressions of them come from observation of their actions instead of signposting dialogue. What little exposition we get comes through Wright himself, who is a character in the show (the Marines sneer at his RS credentials, but are duly impressed when they find out he used to write for Hustler). And as in The Wire, the characters speak in their own language of lingo and jargon, which viewers are trusted to piece together on their own, from context and repeated usage.

The show’s seven episodes follow the Battalion’s Bravo Company from their preparations for the invasion to their movement through the country and finally to their daily patrols in Baghdad. The series doesn’t take an official or obvious position on the war; as with The Wire, there is an admirable absense of soapboxing or solutions. That isn’t to say that opinions aren’t offered; these are real people with something at stake in this conflict. But what you don’t have are a lot of big, grandstanding speeches and come-to-Jesus moments; we piece things together through off-hand comments and behavior, and everyone doesn’t feel the exact same way, or express themselves admirably. There is much more rage in the show toward military bureaucracy, frustration at a chain of command that is mostly disconnected and often downright wrong.

Simon, Burns, and Wright (and the show’s British directors, Susanna White and and Simon Cellan Jones) juggle a huge ensemble cast. There are more than two dozen important speaking roles, and the resulting product has an undeniably Altmanesque feeling to it; as in a kaleidoscope like Nashville or Short Cuts, it’s possible to get lost in the opening sections, to lose track of who’s who. But the writing and direction are confident and assured, and the acting is natural and unshowy. Two of the primary characters stand out: Sergeant Brad “Iceman” Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard, so good as creepy “Eric” on HBO’s True Blood) is a thoughtful, intelligent corpsman with a clear sense of right and wrong and no patience for bullshit, while Corporal Ray Person (James Ranson, memorable as “Ziggy” Sobotka on The Wire’s second season), driving the Humvee in his wraparound Elvis sunglasses, provides a constant stream of funny, quotable, cynical dialogue (my favorite was his response to a comment from the reporter, late in the show: “I knew you were a gay ass fucking liberal. You tried to pretend by invading Iraq with us, but I knew!”) without ever seeming to be anything as jive and simple as “comic relief.” That pair, and the equally excellent Lee Tergesen as Wright’s on-screen alter ego, get the lion’s share of the screen time, but the rest of the cast (many of them real-life members of the Corps) are seen more in fleshed-out, fully realized moments. Several of them (Stark Sands’ bright but frustrated Lt. Fick, Billy Lush’s deceptively simple Lance Cpl. Trombley, Eric Nenninger’s out-of-control Cpt. Dave “Captain America” McGraw, and especially Chance Kelly’s hard-ass Lt. Col. Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando) make incredible impressions with a limited amount of camera time.

But the writing and directing really are the stars here; White and Jones’ filmmaking is smooth but never predictable, and their scenes propel forward with force and genuine momentum. And the scripts are marvels of efficiency and low-key realism—everything, from the broad strokes of military hierarchy to the tiny details of desperate mission preparation (“When the Army goes to war, they get it all… but the Marines, we make do”), feels authentic and inhabited and imbued with a fully realized notion of that particular time, place, and mood. This is excellent, riveting television.

“So what’d you see, reporter?” asks “Godfather” towards the end of the final episode. It’s a hell of a question. What the viewers of Generation Kill see, through the eyes of Evan Wright and his protagonists, is a ground-level view of the Iraq conflict that is neither romanticized nor didactic; it is direct, unvarnished, and feels as honest and real as anything this side of documentary. Kudos to Burns and Simon, for again expanding the conventional wisdom of what television can be, and what it can do.

"Generation Kill" is currently available on DVD; it hits Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 16th.

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