Sunday, July 20, 2008

HBO's Generation Kill

It's been only a few months since the end of The Wire (sniffle) but already, creators David Simon and Edward Burns are back with another hard-hitting show about a difficult American issue. This time they've moved from the war zone of the streets of West Baltimore to the desert sands of Iraq.

Generation Kill is based on writer Evan Wright's book of the same name. He was a writer for Rolling Stone magazine who was sent to Iraq to shadow Marine troops as an embedded reporter as they attacked Iraq, and his resulting articles won a National Magazine Award before being compiled into a book. Wright is played here by Lee Tergesen (who will always be Beecher on Oz to me) and through him we see just how crazy the whole thing is.

The Marines are an impressive group of men, who have a frightening job to do. But they're also a lot of ego and bluster, probably a lot of it turned up simply because there's a reporter in their midst. Some Marines are racist, referring to the Iraqi people as "filthy hajis," while others have a reluctant respect for the Iraqi people, and a knowledge of the country and its history. Some are homophobic, complaining about the presence of gay men in the unit, while others are accepting, constantly kidding "Fruity Rudy," a man in the unit who might be gay, might just be a metrosexual, who is actually played by himself, Rudy Reyes. In many ways, the Marines represent Republicans themselves. They generally support the war, even if they're not quite sure what it's about, and even if they respect the Iraqi people, they're not going to be standing on street corners any time soon pronouncing their support of them.

While their comments to Rudy are more joking, their comments about the Iraqi people are not. They talk about them like they're dogs or enemies in a video game. They wave at them as they roll by in their tanks, then joke about how they could have had a clean shot and besides, who is still wearing pajamas at noon? In one scene at the beginning they read aloud from letters sent from schoolchildren thanking them for fighting for them and hoping the war is over before they have to fight. The Marines mock the letters mercilessly, saying OF COURSE they want to be able to kill some Iraqis before they go home, or else why would they be there? And then they chuck the letters, upset they hadn't gotten some issues of Hustler instead. (When the Rolling Stone reporter shows up, they deride him for working for such a liberal magazine, until they find out he used to write a column for Hustler... then he becomes their hero.)

Is it all bravado? It's not clear. But what is clear is that the government has sent these men into battle with the very basic equipment, and even that doesn't work. They've been equipped with night vision goggles, but they haven't been given any batteries to make them work. Their intel is spotty; the raspy commander, who they all call The Godfather (he has throat cancer) says that he's getting his information from the BBC because the American media isn't available to them. (In more ways than one... a rash of disbelief and horror swarms through the camp when one Marine says he heard J.Lo is dead, and the Marines begin asking questions of everyone coming in, trying to find one person who can confirm or deny this alleged report.) They complain about the vehicles. In a sandstorm, the tent falls apart and the Marines rush outside to put up the tentpoles again.

I'm not connected to the characters yet -- this is a 6-part miniseries, and it will probably take a couple of episodes for that to happen -- but so far I think it's up to the high standards of The Wire. These guys are alternately likable and despicable. They agree with the war, and disagree with it at the same time. In a scene that felt plucked right out of the wire, two soldiers talk about the ruins of tanks in the desert from wars gone by, with one complaining that they haven't bothered to clean up the mess from Desert Storm yet. They discuss the ancient history of the country, and how it's filled with war and bloodshed. And then one turns to the other and says, "White man's gotta rule the world, right?" The irony? He's not white.

The Marines need to separate themselves from the "enemy" by making them less-than-human; otherwise, how can they shoot them? But when they are unexpectedly faced with a group of Iraqi men who have been walking along the railroad tracks for days, feet bloody and bruised, so they could surrender themselves to the troops, they see the reality of war when the message comes back from the higher-ups to let them go. The Marines look around in disbelief. One begins quoting from the Geneva Convention, that they must accept someone who has surrendered and protect them, but all they get is a shrug and a repeated call to follow the orders, and "unsurrender" them. Shocked and angry, the Marines force the Iraqi men to turn around and walk back to where they came from. It's then that they begin to question what exactly they are doing here.

Generation Kill airs on HBO in the U.S. and The Movie Network in Canada at 9 p.m. on Sunday nights, with repeats throughout the week.


Anonymous said...

They represent the American people - some are racist while some have a reluctant respect for the Iraqi people?

So - in your opinion no Americans have an actual respect for the Iraqi people? At our best we can reluctantly respect them?



Nikki Stafford said...

Anonymous Tim: I didn't mean to say that, actually. I've altered the post to refer specifically to Republican people (you'd have to admit that even the most liberal Republican won't wholeheartedly support the Iraqi people).

Jonathan said...

My reading of Nikki's post didn't read the way you saw it, Tim. Read it again.


Deanna McFadden said...

I think we're three episodes in already? And in that short period of time I think Generation Kill has almost filled the void The Wire left in my heart. (Okay maybe it'll never be filled but you just have to stop pining after a while).

It's so well written and what I admire about the team behind the show is how they don't dumb anything down for the viewer. The terminology, the observations, the stupidity of the situation, it's all there for you to make a judgment on your own, and it feels honest, even if it's just a television show. It makes you think.

Plus, and don't hate me for saying this, the boys are hhhot. I heart Ziggy.