Friday, July 31, 2020

Generation Kill Review

Recent history is littered with the carcasses of television and theatrical productions focusing on the ongoing Iraq War. Tommy Lee Jones wrangled an Oscar nomination out of 2007´s "In the Valley of Elah." Director Kimberly Peirce took on the military´s policy of keeping a solider longer than their enlistment contract in "Stop-Loss." FX got into the act with the single season series "Over There." What do all these productions have in common? Each was less successful than the arguable standard bearer in the war category (HBO´s "Band of Brothers," for those who didn´t figure it out). With "The Wire" masterminds David Simon and Ed Burns running the show behind the scenes and a plot based on award-winning journalist Evan Wright´s time embedded with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the United States Marine Corps., "Generation Kill" showcases the changing attitude of the war from within the heart of the military.

For the most part, the seven-episode mini-series plays the war straight down the middle, refusing to take a political side and opting instead to simply tell the story Wright witnessed. It is as if the attitude of the Marines changed nearly in lockstep with those of the country: at first, they are gung-ho to invade Iraq. It is their view, in the first episode, that to invade the country without firing a shot would be a massive disappointment. There is even a cockiness-again shared by the United States as a whole, though it's never mentioned-that the occupation would be quick and easy. As it turns out, by the final scene and as history has dictated, the mission was neither of those things. There is a palpable level of increasing disgust with orders, missions and seemingly out of touch commanders.

There is no better example of this changing attitude than Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick (Stark Sands). Through a series of experiences and incidents he has no control over, yet cut him to the core, he reaches a breaking point, disobeying orders and looking out for his men first and foremost. Never articulated, but plainly evident on his face is a mounting question about Iraq: what are we doing here? Watching "Generation Kill," we know the conflict has not gone the way military leaders thought it would and the rebuilding of Iraq was not of paramount importance. Seeing these events on the evening news, it is easy to be detached from them, to not feel the human factor. After all, these are only nameless faces in a place most of us will never see.

Being in camp and in humvee's alongside 1st Recon, the veil of secrecy is lifted, allowing those nameless faces to gain personalities, a life and a sense of being real. As the field hospital slowly begins to be overrun and every Marine questions why they aren't allowed to restore services to the people, the real tragedy unfolds. The news reports on the roadside bombs and IED's. Far less reported are the looters, the lack of clean drinking water, the miserable conditions Iraqis survive in day in and day out. A place where a lollipop is a prized possession, as the men find.

The question many people will ask is if this production can compete with "Band of Brothers." After all, they both deal with a war situation, involved meticulous amounts of research and are staged by the inarguable king of the television mini-series. On a production level, it does. Shot in various African countries to reproduce the look of the Middle East, "Generation Kill" is technically a thing of beauty. Vast vistas of desolate desert are put up against downtrodden and grimy Iraqi cities in such a way it is impossible to detect a difference. The actors, as expected, are top notch while each episode feels like a roller coaster of events and emotions until the inevitable hard cut to black, followed by credits.

Perhaps it is the immense gravitas afforded the subject or the overwhelmingly positive portrayal of World War II by history, but this story isn't able to compare. The participants, while drawn as realistically as possible, feel younger and less ready for the trials of war. Plus, as is pointed out in the extras, they tend to be cruder than their EZ Company counterparts. There's almost an uneasy feeling when some of the words come out of their mouths. These are heroes, after all, and we don't like to see our heroes being anything but fine, upstanding people. I'm almost reticent to mention the controversy about the war itself. It plays an undeniable factor here in tainting the way these men are seen. Pro-war audiences will have no qualm with seeing an ongoing military action dramatized. On the other hand, those who don't see Iraq on the same footing as WWII will justifiably question whether someone is trying to elevate the conflict.

When it was originally announced, both DVD and Blu-ray editions of "Generation Kill" were scheduled. With less than a month until street date, the high def version was canceled with no reason, leaving only this package on the shelf. While it would be nice for HBO to start streeting their programs on both formats day-and-date, there is nothing technically wrong with the anamorphic widescreen transfers presented on this three-disc set.