June 30, 2009

Generation Kill image HBO series (3).jpg

When The Wire ended it was a bittersweet moment. For five seasons, The Wire showed what television could be, and that long form storytelling need not get lost in useless subplots, or characters added to reinvigorate a stale premise. Put simply, The Wire is the finest accomplishment the format has come to offer, and the only consolation was that the show never faltered, it never stopped being brilliant. Creators David Simon and Ed Burns had earned the right to fail, to take chances, to do whatever television presented them, and their follow up was the HBO miniseries Generation Kill. My review is after the jump:

Generation Kill Blu-ray.jpgFor Wire-heads such as myself, there can be nothing sweeter, and it’s easy for me to describe the seven part series as the unintentional sixth season of The Wire. After covering America’s failings in police work, in unions, in politics, in the school system, and in the media, Generation Kill shows how – in a microcosm -the American military failed in its invasion of Iraq (the W one).

Following the 1st Recon Marines, the show starts with them practicing for their upcoming activities, heading into the capital. Though there’s a wide cast of characters, the story mostly follows journalist Evan Wright (Lee Tergesen) and the group he’s embedded with, which includes Sgt. Brad Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard), Cpl. Josh Ray Pierson (James Ransone, aka Ziggy from Season 2 of The Wire), Lt. Nathaniel Flick (Stark Sands) and Lance Cpl. Harold James Trombley (Billy Lush).

One of the most amazing things David Simon and Ed Burns did in adapting Evan Wright’s book (working with directors Susanna Grant and Simon Cellan Jones) is create a narrative that has none of the hooks of standard narrative storytelling. When there’s a firefight, it doesn’t feel like the main event, as the main event is hanging out with the guys, who are trying to make their way and not die. There’s no tension about their fate, and no one is put in ridiculous jeopardy, nor is great heroism portrayed. It’s about – as was the case with The Wire – the in-between time, where these men bullshit and reveal who they are.

But just under the surface of that (even though the mini-series covers what is arguably the most successful aspect of the Iraq invasion) is how everything would go bad, and how things will fall apart. The men aren’t always told the best information about the situations they are in, where going from “only shoot if fired upon” turns quickly into “do what you have to do.” And those civilians who get caught in the cross-fire, or prisoners of war are left to the wayside, collateral damage as the planning and care for them is left to the winds. The men are under-supplied, and are constantly trying to make their situation better. One man loses his helmet, and goes through a number of alternatives, with the worst being an enemy combatant’s helmet, which results in some friendly fire. When the men finally reach Bagdad, planning is even worse, as their main goal is achieved but the results are that the people being liberated are – again – not looked after, and left to drink feces-laden water.

Generation Kill image HBO series (1).jpgBut even though the show ends on a heavy note, the series itself is relatively light as it is about the banter, and the characters. Some of whom are mentally unstable, but others, like Pierson, are fun to be around. You enjoy their back and forth. And where The Wire mostly kept itself free from obvious pop-culturisms, here (perhaps because of the defined timeline) there are numbers of pop culture references as songs are sung throughout. It adds to the texture, as much as the men passing around the picture of Wright’s girlfriend, or the moment when the men are rewarded with Chef Boy-r-dees and smut. You get to live with the men, and feel it, and then experience why the operation – even in its success will lead to where we are now. It’s powerful stuff.

HBO’s Blu-ray edition does the standard def version one better by offer a couple of exclusives. The show is presented in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 audio. Each episode comes with a military glossary, a chain of command, and Mission Maps. The latter are especially useful if you get a bit confused on who is who and where they are. The first three episodes come with commentaries by David Simon, Ed Burns and director Susanna White, while the finale comes with commentary by Simon and producer George Faber. The third disc offers the rest of the supplements, which are “Generation Kill: A conversation with 1st Recon Marines” ( 23) which gets together Evan Wright with the real guys who were there with him. There’s a Making of (25 min.), “Eric Laden’s Video Diaries” (30 min.) where one of the actors walks through their training and the shoot, and “Deleted Dialogues” which offers five dialog sequences cut from the show (15 min.). As a whole the supplements compliment the show nicely, and give good viewpoints on the real people and how the whole thing worked. This is a must if you love David Simon, and easily the best fiction presentation of America’s current involvement in Iraq, regardless of your politics.

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