Movies and TV shows about America’s current conflicts in the Middle East haven’t exactly fared well recently, either critically or commercially, but that hasn’t stopped The Wire creator David Simon and his producing and writing partner Ed Burns from following up their groundbreaking and highly praised cops-and-criminals series with Generation Kill (HBO, Sundays, 9 p.m.), a seven-part miniseries about a Marine unit during the early days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
As fits Simon and Burns’ unflagging dedication to verisimilitude, Kill is based on a nonfiction book by Rolling Stone correspondent Evan Wright, and uses real names for its characters and a great deal of Wright’s actual reported dialogue. Wright himself is one of three series writers (along with Simon and Burns), and is a major character on the show (although he’s referred to only as “reporter” or “Rolling Stone”). Thus the show mostly eschews statements about the justness or validity of the war, and focuses instead on creating an empathetic portrait of the men on the ground tasked with implementing plans made back in Washington.
Incendiary title aside, the series tries hard not to indict its young characters for any of the failings of the ongoing Iraq campaign (of course, Abu Ghraib is still on the distant horizon in this time frame). Unlike, say, Brian De Palma’s Redacted, Kill isn’t about untrained and unprepared newbies getting dumped into a war zone in a foreign culture; these Reconnaissance Marines are an elite unit who’ve been extensively trained, and even if they’re young, they all more or less know what they’re doing. It’s the higher-ups, the unit commanders and far-away generals, who take the most abuse here, with the decision-making process depicted as hopelessly confused and contradictory. Although there are a few references to Bush and Rumsfeld, Simon and Burns don’t need to reach nearly that high to find someone to pin mistakes on.
The trouble with Generation Kill is not its political consciousness or lack thereof; it’s a fair, evenhanded portrait of one aspect of the early invasion, and viewers can take from it either a subdued political critique or simply a tribute to the difficulties that Marines face every day. The problem with the show’s assiduous focus on realism is that Simon and Burns never offer an entry point for the viewer; we never get a sense of most of the characters as people, and the missions and objectives of the unit are constantly expressed in impenetrable military jargon. Eventually a few strong personalities emerge, but it takes at least half the series to really distinguish them.
Just about the only one who comes through loud and clear from the start is Corporal Ray Person (Wire veteran James Ransone), a vulgar loudmouth whom the show uses as a mouthpiece for its titular generation. On The Wire, part of the excitement of each new season was figuring out who the players were and how they related to each other, and if it took seven episodes for the pieces to come together, that was fine. That same principle doesn’t apply when seven episodes is all you get. Simon and Burns are so dedicated to avoiding exposition that much of the time it’s hard to tell what the soldiers are supposed to be doing or why.
Perhaps the confusing and repetitive nature of the storytelling is meant to represent the chaos of the situation in Iraq; amid the unclear action there are some strong character moments from Ransone and Alexander Skarsgard as Sergeant Brad “Iceman” Colbert. But for a follow-up to a series of such brilliance and depth as The Wire, Generation Kill is a muddled disappointment.
The bottom line: **1/2