The first episode — or more specifically the first 20 minutes — of HBO’s new miniseries Generation Kill confirms a conservative’s worst fears about HBO’s latest Iraq project.
Right away the Marines depicted are casually racist, homophobic and ignorant beyond reproach. They complain about the lack of supplies, decry their mission and mock letters of support from children back home. One Marine goes so far as to describe the little girl who wrote one of the letters as “hot.”
The dialogue also pays the mission no favors.
“It’s destiny, dawg. White man’s gotta rule the world,” says one Marine of color, while another jokes that his fellow Marines going in to “loot and pillage a country.”
No one comes anywhere near supporting the invasion.
Yet Kill, based on the nonfiction book by embedded reporter Evan Wright, overcomes its initial bombardment of anti-soldier sentiment.
Generation Kill delivers a remarkably realistic glimpse of modern warfare. Soldiers get casualty updates via the Web. Marines bring their own video cameras on the front lines when they’re not snapping digital pictures of the action. They sing hip-hop anthems while driving into battle.
This isn’t the Greatest Generation.
The miniseries, which begins at 9 p.m. EST July 13, follows the Marines of the First Reconnaissance Battalion who led the charge in the Iraq war’s first few days. The miniseries tracks their progress through Iraq, their mission changing every day, and sometimes every hour. Chaos and a total lack of proper management are the hallmark of the invasion’s early chapters, to hear Kill’s take on the material. But then how did the U.S. forces manage to topple Saddam Hussein’s army so efficiently?
The first of seven hour-long episodes is so unrelentingly negative it may take a miracle for viewers to tune in next week. Even the first hour’s lone positive, a scene in which Marines get surprised by stacks of pizza boxes, turns sour when they learn the slices aren’t free.
We’re told much of the dialogue, and action, came straight from Wright’s notebook. But a good dramatist understands the need for balance. Instead, the miniseries spends too much time focusing on every military misstep, the camera lingering on dead Iraqi bodies as long as possible.
Kill improves measurably in its second and subsequent hours, falling into a tense pattern of battles and pre-attack banter. Don’t expect the typical Hollywood action sequences. The assaults come from nowhere, and often end before a dozen shots are fired.
The dialogue is raw but flows remarkably well, lending the project a hyper-realism few war films can muster. Overlapping conversations aren’t easy to pull off, but Kill’s tight cast makes it sound natural and unrehearsed. The military jargon comes out easily from these actors’ mouths, and the gaggle of on-set advisors make sure maximum authenticity is achieved. It’s the closest you’ll come to hearing what it’s like between mortar assaults.
Not a moment of Generation Kill feels corny or staged. Co-director Susanna White brings a deep documentary background to the project, and the effect is immediately felt.
Some cast standouts demand attention. Chance Kelly cuts a chilling figure as The Godfather, the scratchy voiced Lt. Col. who lords over his troops not unlike his namesake. He supplies the miniseries’ requisite villain, but he’s still allowed a few human moments, like when he tells the embedded reporter how his voice lowered to its current register.
The quickest mouth in the wiseacre battalion belongs to Cpl. Josh Ray Person, given a great deal of humor by James Ransone (Prom Night). This being HBO, we’re also treated to numerous scenes concerning how Marines relieve themselves and manage sexual frustrations. John Wayne never had to suffer such indignities on screen.
Generation Kill comes from David Simon and Ed Burns, the creators behind HBO’s celebrated series The Wire. Their imprint is all over Kill, even if the setting is thousands of miles from their former show’s Baltimore ‘hood. The miniseries’ budget allows for superior location shots, with Southern Africa subbing for Iraq.
Not every scene is shot for maximum horror. One sequence has the Marines winding through a city street teeming with hidden insurgents. They take fire and return in kind, and after a few nail-biting moments the Marines drive away without having suffered a casualty.
Their caravan’s members slowly exhale, then turn to each other with child-like grins beaming across their faces.
“We got lit up,” one says, his smile the widest of them all. Even the embedded reporter drops his journalistic façade to appreciate the moment.
Generation Kill wisely includes plenty of dark humor, the kind that’s only possible in wartime. Commanders obsess over facial hair regulations. Marines hear a rumor that Jennifer Lopez has died back home and do everything they can to corroborate it. And the embedded reporter loses his only picture of his girlfriend to some lonely Marines. A snapshot of a pretty girl is priceless for men in combat.
Both Wright and the creators of Generation Kill insist their work isn’t political. But political theater often involves what an artist chooses to show and what he leaves behind. It’s impossible to deny Kill reveals some of their biases, but it’s equally hard to write off the project’s commitment to recreating modern warfare.