July 13th, 2008
When watching Generation Kill, a miniseries event from HBO, it’s impossible not to draw the obvious comparisons to The Wire. While usually shows from the same creator bear moderate resemblance to one another, David Simon and Ed Burns have a style so distinctive that it’s hard to write a single sentence about this series without discuss the other. The Wire was a show about dropping the viewer into a world they didn’t understand without holding their hand about it, developing its own language, identities, and pacing. It wasn’t about telling a story about something, but rather telling the story.
That story, here, is the journey of a Marine Corps Battalion, and their embedded reporter Evan Wright (Who wrote the novel the series is based on), as they invade Iraq in the opening throes of the 2003 invasion. There’s a lot of people thrown around, and like The Wire you never really pick up their names so much as begin to identify them based on other characteristics. Although the first segment is not eventful in the traditional sense, the various bits and pieces we see give us enough of a background so that, when things do go down, we’ll know how people should or do react.
What makes Generation Kill compelling is not just Simon and Burns’ usual sharp writing and ear for realistic drama, or even the great cinematography/direction – rather, it’s seeing all of this play out in a context where we know the basic story at hand. In most stories, there would be attempts to shoehorn politics into this story; to not only show the wrong camouflage being sent to the army, but to show some stuffshirt politician making the decision so as to villainize. Here, the authority is a villain by omission – we as an audience have information they don’t, and that isolation is incredibly compelling.
It is also, however, intoxicating – when a show requires flow charts, you know that you’re not in for a normal television watching experience. Thus far, though? It’s a damn good one.
From a story perspective, it’s all very simple: they go from training in Kuwait to their first journey into Iraq proper as the segment progresses, but they aren’t all of a sudden leaping into battle. That first altercation with the Iraqi death squad (or so they are described by one of their surrenderees) is really the nature of this conflict: their orders are fluid, constantly changing and unwilling to commit to any real form of action. Which makes it a bit of a confusing viewing experience, but that’s part of the point: if we’re confused, something tells me the people being given the orders were more confused.
Those people are, thus far, wide-ranging and interesting. There’s just the right balance of high and low rank individuals, and there’s a good portrait painted for most of them. Iceman, in particular, gets the most sympathetic characterization here, establishing him (besides the first spot in the credits) as our lead. His struggle to outfit his vehicle, including attempting to Fedex part of his turret to get it there beyond an Army postal service, individualizes him over any of our other soldiers.
Probably most interesting beyond that point is Nate, the Bravo Lieutenant, mainly because of something that Simon and Burns love: chain of command. I watched the premiere with HBO’s Organizational flow chart at the ready, and it was helpful in contextualizing someone like Nate. There’s something intensely likable about him, whether it’s covering for his unit’s incompetence with the espresso machine or having to be the one to deliver the bad news when the word comes down regarding the various tactical issues later in the episode. He’s a victim of the chain of command, essentially – what little we see of his own character shows someone who is willing to protect his soldiers, the only really important part of this equation.
And then we come to Ray, Humvee 1’s talkative driver. I have to wonder how James Ransone feels about being under “Annoying as F*ck” on David Simon’s rolodex, because between this role and Ziggy on The Wire the guy’s got the market cornered. I don’t say that as a criticism – while it was jarring on The Wire where it felt out of place to a certain extent, here it feels totally right: if they were looking to capture the cockiness of some members of the Marine Corps, he succeeded. And, more importantly, I think it actually evens out as charming here: by the time he was warbling Sk8er Boi while taking a piss before breaking into Loving You, I was enjoying his character (And his interactions with “Iceman” Colbert).
There’s still a lot of things we haven’t seen: we don’t yet have a good lead on Wright himself, mostly by design. We get a sense that he’s having issues adjusting, particularly in the groin region after that particular incident, but since this is his story being put on screen it’s natural that we spend more time with the people he interacted with.
But what keeps me most compelled here is Simon and Burns playing in a universe of public knowledge – most of the people watching the series already know the story of how screwed up this mission was, so seeing them slowly take that into account is just good television. Yes, it’s a slow burn, but even to this point it feels like the right direction: the humanizing of the people on the ground fighting a war that we know all too much about in terms of its end consequences.
- I’m fascinated by the fact that “Fruity Rudy” is actually played by the marine himself, after they couldn’t find an actor who could pull off the dialogue to their liking. It must be weird to be playing yourself in such a realistic environment that’s clearly not real, per se. I enjoy the character, though, so it should be quite intriguing to see the character (can we call it a character?) develop.
- I only recognized a few performers, but I spent way too much time remembering that I last saw one of them as the pilot’s Terminator model on Sarah Connor Chronicles.
- And, can’t not mention the great boss Sergeant Major and the fantastic “Police that Moos-tache!” line that Alan Sepinwall steals for his post title. Just a hilarious little scene, and a sign that like The Wire this show will have its own sense of humour.