On HBO, The Fierce Tug of War

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008

Making an earnest attempt to fake magnanimity, the commanding officer approaches a small group of his men and tells them he wants to know exactly what's bothering them, what their complaints and concerns are. "I want you to talk freely," he insists. When they come up with only meager responses, he presses them further to be frank, candid, honest. Finally one of the men, "Doc," speaks up.

"Well, sir," he says, as the officer leans in to hear him over the sound of gunfire, "it's just that you're incompetent, sir."

You could knock over the officer with a feather. Shocked, but determined not to look it, he says with childlike defensiveness, "I'm doing the best I can."

So goes one of countless electrifying, mortifying or stupefying moments that make up "Generation Kill," a grippingly powerful HBO miniseries about the earliest days of the Iraq war, back when billboards that had Saddam Hussein's puss on them still littered the desert landscape. The seven-part docudrama, premiering tonight, is based on Evan Wright's 2004 book about the three weeks he spent embedded with the Marine Corps' 1st Reconnaissance Battalion as it made its way from Kuwait into Iraq in 2003.

At the very least, "Generation Kill" -- as written mostly by executive producers David Simon and Ed Burns of "The Wire" fame (Wright co-wrote some episodes) -- qualifies as the "Platoon" of the Iraq war: an often poignant, sometimes shattering and occasionally criminally funny account of men trapped on a battlefield of confusion, uncertainty and cross-purposes. Wright and the filmmakers know it is not enough to say that war is hell or that war is evil. The point here also seems to be that war is stupid, this one more so than many others, and that the higher one goes in the hierarchy of command, the stupider the commanders tend to be.

George W. Bush and his advisers aren't portrayed, but they are definitely implicated. Some soldiers respectfully defend the nation's leaders in the ancient soldierly tradition of do-or-die/not-reason-why that the Light Brigade glorified.

The men (no women, as it happens) of the 1st Recon are not a group of peaceniks, lefties or outspoken critics of U.S. foreign policy. Although there are, among the group, more than a few idiosyncratic eccentrics and downright loonies, all the warriors are united in their determination to "kill bad guys" and "win" the war -- a war in which victory appears not only elusive but hard to define.

Perhaps there is some veracity to the notion that bad wars can lead to good movies; "Generation Kill" joins a body of cinematic literature that includes anguished, probing contemporary films dealing with war in a much more complex way than did the glory-guy, gung-ho Hollywood pictures of the past. With such Iraq-era films as Sam Mendes's "Jarhead" (2005), written by William Broyles Jr., "Generation Kill" shares a sense of disbelief; a grim color scheme dictated mostly by nature; and -- at least in the opening chapter -- a display of what used to be called beefcake and is now sometimes deemed "homoerotic."

As they wait to enter their staging area -- essentially preparing to prepare -- some of the Marines wrestle, roughhouse, flex and, in one peculiar case, preen and pose in the nude, in the middle of a busy command center. Homosexuality is, predictably or not, one of the subjects that the men talk about ad infinitum as they "wait -- and wait -- and wait" (like in the opening scene of "Casablanca") for something to happen, and it keeps recurring throughout the miniseries, as when one of the men envisions his model for a preposterous gay bar.

Few lines of dialogue can be quoted here intact. Obscenities, profanities and a veritable dictionary of scatology pepper every conversation, but it isn't gratuitous as in so many non-war movies but rather authentic-sounding, even somehow poetic in its matter-of-fact excess.

The brutal language is used mercilessly in Episode 4 (Aug. 3), when a chaplain saunters by hoping to scare up enough men for a prayer group and some of the men assure him they are up to the task of killing off the "heathen" enemy. When he's gone, one young officer calls him a "(blank) shill of God" who "won't pick up a weapon" no matter how dire the straits -- whereas even the Wright surrogate, a reporter for Rolling Stone who comes along for the ride and a story (and later, of course, a book) gets involved in a battle beyond rooting for our side.

What they say helps define who they are. Sgt. Tony "Poke" Espera (Jon Huertas), one of the true standouts in the company, never tires of blaming "the white man" for whatever predicament presents itself, rummaging back through history if need be to denounce powers that were in addition to those that be. Finally, in a later episode, Espera is confronted: Just what minority does he represent? He sometimes poses as a Native American, sometimes as an African American, but appears to be a Latino. Whatever he is, he's quotable -- often by himself.

Alexander Skarsgard, who plays Team Leader Brad "Iceman" Colbert, looks so much like another actor here -- with the wildly appropriate name of Stark Sands (playing 1st Lt. Nathaniel Fick) -- that it's hard to tell them apart and parcel out credit. They both have a boyish look that camouflages a true believer's iron will. All the casting is fastidious, especially Chance Kelly, who plays gravelly-voiced 1st Recon Cmdr. Stephen Ferrando, whose nickname is an ominous "Godfather" and whose word is law, at least most of the time.

Everybody has a nickname, as you may have deduced, and among the most appropriate is that of Capt. Dave McGraw (Eric Nenninger), known as "Capt. America" and the most impassioned of all the fighters for truth, justice and so on. His policy is to overstate every peril and underplay every potential cause for hope; in Episode 2 (July 20), he engages and pulverizes an abandoned SUV for reasons known but to him. McGraw has many complaints, a lot of them shared by his fellow soldiers, with the most prominent being the crummy equipment, the "recycled junk" with which the Marines have been told to fight the war. The worst offenders are the clunkety Humvees, rattletraps so unreliable that men spend their own time and money trying to make them battle-ready.

Food is inadequate, supplies are inadequate (in part because one supply wagon is inadvertently blown to smithereens), the tools of the trade are inferior, but the tradesmen themselves are ready, "perfectly tuned Ferraris," as one of the men says, reduced to participating in "a demolition derby."

Whatever one's feelings on the war, the truism about supporting the troops holds up. You can't help but identify with these guys, and to pull for them, trapped as they are between a top command wracked with indecisiveness and dubious motivation and an enemy who can't be trusted to look like the enemy -- some of the bad guys take a perverse and cowardly pleasure in hiding among civilians, then parade civilian victims around when one of them is injured or killed.

Even if appropriated for crass propaganda use, these casualties are painfully tragic. Episode 4 ends with an image so wrenching as to be immeasurably sad, and all because an Iraqi in the driver's seat of a car didn't seem to recognize the warning shots fired over the car for what they were. The car keeps coming, and the Marines change their aim. Every so often there is a little burst of cruel, trenchant imagery that hits home and hard -- a human arm sticking out of the ground like a weird kind of tree; the spectacle of nighttime bombing that eerily lights up a distant vista ("Pretty, isn't it?" one soldier notes with typical irony); one soldier exiting a portable toilet with a copy of Hustler magazine in his hand; a caravan of Pizza Hut trucks arriving unexpectedly with a bounty of bliss.

Directed by Susanna White and Simon Cellan Jones, "Generation Kill" brings the world of the soldiers to vividly detailed life -- so forcefully that even initially resistant viewers might soon feel they're embedded with the troops. When they aren't talking -- about masturbation, or junk food (Charms candies are superstitiously banned from all military vehicles), or horror movies, or women -- the soldiers are singing: a falsetto "Lovin' You" a la Minnie Riperton or an old Vietnam-era protest song, even one that ends with the observation that "We're all going to die."

In an afterword to the paperback edition of his book, author Wright restates his admiration for the soldiers with whom he lived and on whom he depended for survival. "Five years into this war, I am not always confident most Americans fully appreciate the caliber of the people fighting for them, the sacrifices they have made, and the sacrifices they continue to make," Wright says. "After the Vietnam War ended, the onus of shame largely fell on the veterans. This time around, if shame is to be had when the Iraq conflict ends -- and all indications are there will be plenty of it -- the veterans are the last people in America to deserve it."

"Generation Kill" makes that point so powerfully as to stand among the truest and most trenchant war movies of all time.

Episode 1 of Generation Kill (68 minutes) debuts tonight at 9 on HBO.

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