Generation Kill Movie Review

In their seven-part Iraq War miniseries adaptation of Evan Wright's book Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns roll up a quiverful of arrows to fire off at various topics, ranging from the rampaging adrenaline of young men at war to the supreme idiocy of the invasion itself. However, the bright and gleaming theme running through most of these hard-bitten episodes has the filmmakers illustrating an age-old military maxim: Soldiers are often much more likely to be killed by the decisions of their submoronic leadership than they are by actions undertaken by the enemy. When that enemy is as pathetic a force as Saddam's Republican Guard, and the American officer corps obsessed more with the idea of taking Baghdad at warp speed than properly clearing the territory they're pushing through (both points made time and again in this series), that maxim is even more true than usual.

Wright was a Rolling Stone reporter who somehow got himself embedded in the First Recon Marine unit that was frequently at the very point of the entire American military machine rolling into Iraq in 2003. In the capable hands of Simon and Burns, his story of these turbo-trained alpha-male hunter-killers becomes something unlike most any other film project about the war. It opens in the sands of Kuwait, with the platoons tussling in the sand like overgrown boys, primed with teeth-bared intensity to launch themselves at Saddam's forces; only, in the manner of Jarhead, that great battle never quite seems to come.

Elite troops trained to operate as far-forward stealth reconnaissance units, the men are dropped into unarmored Humvees and sent charging into the desert along with every other regular unit hurtling toward Baghdad. They dash off on one ill-considered mission after another for their vainglorious leader -- a lieutenant colonel nicknamed "Godfather" due to a raspy voice caused by throat cancer. Each episode follows the ad-hoc manner of the invasion itself, ignoring tried and true war movie rules with few easily-defined starts and stops to combat, just a grind of low-level skirmishes and inconclusive firefights, all of it leavened by a constant stream of obscenity. The men curse their officers, they curse each other -- in language that, to your average, coddled, middle-class HBO viewer and film critic, sounds downright Neanderthal in its racism and homophobia -- and they curse the enemy, for among other things, still fighting after it's obvious the Americans have won.

It's in the seductive rhythms of the soldiers' poetic profanity that Simon, Burns, and Wright's writing particularly shines. It's a skill that Simon and Burns put to beautiful use on The Wire, and here again they put forward their talent for catching the pearls of wisdom and sarcastic insight scattered amongst the endless complaining indulged in by highly-trained men who get paid to carry guns and kill people. Much of Generation Kill is simply a reflection of Wright's experience riding in a Humvee and listening to the brotherly badinage between the driver, hyperactive Missouri kid Ray Person (James Ransone, from the second season of The Wire) and team leader Brad "Iceman" Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård, a cool drink of water and the heart of the series, with knowing eyes that seem to swallow the world).

Unlike many war films, when the action interrupts the talking, it's often more an irritation than tension relief. Directors Susanna White and Simon Cellan Jones have a crisp but chaotic take on the combat scenes that extends to their treatment of the characters. We don't get the clichéd doling out of one defining characteristic per person in order to set them apart. Of course, it also takes two or three confused episodes before the large cast begins to come into focus; Simon and Burns may still be too used to the more leisurely pace of The Wire, which had almost twice as long to develop its characters. Viewers are also left on their own to plow through the dense tangle of jargon which these men spit at each other in between obscenities. A typical bit of dialogue goes something like: "Hitman Two Actual, this is Hitman One, we're Oscar Mike in thirty mikes."

Wright clearly wanted to do right by the men he wrote about (one reason the military embeds reporters is the hope that they'll identify so much with the men they won't write anything critical of them), but the show doesn't shy from their mistakes and more-than-occasional ugliness. Civilians die in shocking ways, whether through confusion, stupidity, or downright coldbloodedness; one Marine is nakedly open about his burning to finally shoot somebody, anybody. Given that just about everybody here is playing a living person (except for a couple, like Daoist fitness freak Rudy Reyes, who shows up as himself), the burden of verisimilitude is that much heavier; by every possible standard, the filmmakers hold up their end of the bargain to portray these men in as honest a light as possible. By the end of these seven episodes, viewers will easily feel that they know and understand each of these very unique men, even if you wouldn't want them within 50 yards of your sister.

HBO's three-disc DVD release of the series comes with a number of audio commentary tracks, as well as more (hilarious) deleted dialogues between the men, a making-of documentary, and an illuminating conversation between Wright and several of the actual Recon Marines he was embedded with and were portrayed in the series. Most importantly, though, the set contains a booklet with a glossary for much of the series' acronym- and slang-laden dialogue. Some of the terminology knowledgeable civilians could have figured out on their own ("sit-rep" for "situation report" and "Whiskey Tango" for "white trash"), but who would know that "schwack" meant to kill?

Cast & Crew

Director : Susanna White,

Producer : , , , , David Simon, Anne Thomopoulos

Starring : , , Rey Valentin, , , , Chance Kelly, , Brian Wade, Rudy Reyes, Neal Jones

Comments

Generation Kill Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 2008

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