Wednesday, June 17, 2009
You'd think that the completion of the epic, all-encompassing vision of America, The Wire, might have given David Simon a moment's pause to reflect on his achievement. But Simon wasn't content to rest on his laurels, so he took writing partner Ed Burns and set out on a new project that debuted mere months after The Wire aired its final episode. That they decided to make something concerning the war in Iraq is unsurprising, as the War on Terror is the sole area of modern American life they could not realistically examine on the streets of Baltimore. What is surprising, even for the absurdly high bar the pair set for themselves, is how they made Generation Kill such an intense, unbiased and incredibly shot masterpiece.
They based the miniseries off the book of the same name by Rolling Stone columnist Evan Wright, who was embedded with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the U.S. Marine Corps during the initial phase of the Iraq invasion in 2003. Working with this material allows Simon and Burns, who brought such a level of authenticity to The Wire because they saw many of the events firsthand, to bring their trademark realism to the war.
As with The Wire, Generation Kill throws a great many characters at you from the start and forces you to sort out the grease, sweat and sand-covered faces yourself. Quickly, though, we see that the man focus is on the 2nd Platoon of the battalion's Bravo Company, with the stoic Sgt. Brad 'Iceman' Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård) at the center. There's also Cpl. Josh Ray Person (James Ransone, who also played Ziggy Sobotka in The Wire), who always has a sarcastic retort ready to go; Lt. Fick, the courteous and measured platoon leader; and even Wright himself, played with a perfect childlike innocence by Lee Tergesen. The Marines answer to the Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Stephen 'Godfather' Ferrando (Chance Kelly), so-called because throat cancer left him without fully functioning vocal cords, which makes him sound like the Don. They must also face Neal Jones as a hilariously and permanently enraged Sergeant Major, who seems to fit all those old war movie clichés, but only because such people really do exist.
Wright arrives to join the group as they prepare to leave Camp Mathilda in Kuwait, and is immediately disliked. The soldiers mock his Rolling Stone credentials and dismiss him as just some liberal reporter looking to demonize them for monetary gain, but their mood shifts when he admits he used to be the chief porn reviewer at Hustler. The men are in peak physical condition, they've passed all the training, and they're rarin' to go.
That gung-ho attitude changes, however, when the invasion begins. As soon as the men enter the country, they realize that no level of training can prepare them for what they're about to deal with. As some of the first Americans to move into Iraq, the 1st Recon must concern itself not only with the orders of superiors but of the possible reactions and perceptions of a terrified populous. The macho exteriors of many of the men quickly fade as they pass shattered corpses of children and must constantly revise the rules of engagement that are inadequate in this new war. Along the way, they find themselves questioning their notions of right and wrong, without ever splitting the Marines into the "conscientious poster boys" and "desensitized madmen" that so many lesser war films assign their characters.
While the battle scenes are visceral and perfectly shot by directors Susanna White and Simon Cellan Jones, what makes Generation Kill so damn good is how little time it spends in the shit, preferring instead to focus on these characters in-between each engagement. However, there are no character arcs to speak of, no deep analysis of each character to make some comment on the futility of it all. Rather, we watch the company as a whole deal with the madness of it all; Simon and Burns only care about what the war is doing to these men as it's doing it. And what a strange crew it is: apart from the main characters' quirks, we meet a health nut who plans to move to San Francisco because "there are no fat people there," a gangbanger and a 19-year-old who seems disturbingly happy whenever he gets to fire his weapon.
Fick finds himself constantly at odds with his superiors, who insist they stick to the obsolete rules of engagement, and distances himself from the other officers, including a looting "Captain America" and "Encino Man," a former football star who perhaps took one too many hits to the head and is dangerously slow. He can only slip into cynicism with the rest of his outfit as their advances are sidelined, halted and poorly planned even when they do move forward.
Such mishaps include the constant lack of necessary supplies, ranging from chemical suits with the wrong camo pattern, body and vehicular armor that never arrives and even food shortages. One night, they inadvertently kill an Iraqi driver who only drove faster when the Marines fired warning shots because he thought they were already shooting at him. Young Trombley gets a little too trigger-happy and tears apart some shepherds. And the company's sole interpreter, Meesh, spends more time changing what each party is saying to the other than he does actually translating properly. When the team discovers a wounded Syrian insurgent, Meesh reads the man's passport and finds that he entered the country only days earlier and listed "Jihad" as his reason for coming. "Isn't this the opposite of what we want to happen here?" Fick asks Wright. "Two weeks ago he was still a student in Syria. He wasn’t a Jihadi until we came to Iraq.”
The Marines make all the homophobic and racist jokes you might expect, but it's not because they're nothing but a bunch of half-brained grunts: they become so desensitized to the violence around them that they constantly goad one another just to see if they can still get a rise out of someone. At least, that's how I read it, as Simon never forces any messages upon us; he broke from this method of writing with the final season of The Wire, but mercifully Generation Kill marks a return to form. That's not to say that there isn't subtext, though: late in the miniseries, Wright voices his suspicions that there are no WMDs in Iraq. If that's true, he wonders, "Why are we here in the first place?" Ray doesn't miss a beat, and slams the reporter the platoon has come to admire and accept: "I knew you were a fucking gay-ass liberal! You tried to pretend by invading Iraq with us, but I knew." In that moment, Wright is a stand-in for the entire media, who allowed themselves to be lied to in order to ride the ratings wave of wartime, only to react with shock when they, the people whose job it is to seek out the truth, learned there was no concrete justification for the invasion.
The men place all of themselves into reaching Baghdad, believing it to be the endgame, but when they arrive they can only marvel as the vast city falls prey to looting and violence as a result of the "liberation." The men and women who serve in our military don't have time to worry about whether they should be there: they simply have to survive. But as you watch Hitman Two make its way through the country, you can't see a single thing that would possess George Bush to declare victory in only a few weeks. Generation Kill is fundamentally about how Wright's pre-conceived notions of these Marines vastly changed once he, you know, actually got to know them, and it's hard not to look at these guys differently yourself by the end of it.
Generation Kill is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the finest miniseries ever made, perhaps the best since Band of Brothers. It's perfectly acted, scripted and directed, never losing itself in its dense, uncompromising narrative mire. It's often been said that there's no such thing as an anti-war film, as film by its very nature sensationalizes everything. But this project, without ever putting forward an anti-war agenda, manages to downplay its impressive battle sequences to capture the stark horror of it all, and it does so without resorting to audience manipulation either. The final season of The Wire suffered for its brevity, but Simon and Burns manage to craft a work every bit as powerful, revealing and thoroughly captivating as their magnum opus with only seven episodes. These men are truly geniuses.