HBO // 2008 // 470 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // December 16th, 2008
The war in Iraq and its ramifications have proved difficult to satisfactorily capture on film (and television), as seen by the failure of films such as In the Valley of Elah and Redacted, as well as the FX series Over There. With Generation Kill, HBO makes its own attempt at depicting the conflict. Based on a book of the same name by Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone editor embedded with a Marine battalion (the book itself based on a series of articles by Wright for that magazine), the miniseries was spearheaded by David Simon and Ed Burns, both of the acclaimed HBO series The Wire. The result is a well made, albeit problematic, look at modern Marines fighting a modern war.
In March of 2003, a U.S.-led coalition invades Iraq. At the tip of the spear for the invasion is the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the United States Marine Corps (1st Recon for short). Accompanying them on their mission is Rolling Stone editor Evan Wright (Lee Tergeson). Wright spends much of his time with Bravo Company, which includes the stern but caring Lt. Nathaniel Fick (Stark Sands), cool, collected Sgt. Brad Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård), motormouth Cpl. Ray Person (James Ransone, The Wire), and inexperienced but eager LCpl. Harold James Trombley (Billy Lush). Together, these men and the rest of 1st Recon will face hostile enemy combatants, mixed reactions from the general populace, and incompetence from some of their own commanders.
Sam Mendes' Jarhead, while undeniably a well made film, grows tedious at times because of its all-too-skillful depiction of bored Marines. Tedium of a similar sort pervades the first half or so of Generation Kill, as we are subjected to scene after scene of Marines b.s.-ing with one another in incredibly profane (not to mention homophobic, racist, and misogynistic) language, with an occasional combat sequence to break things up. I'm not saying that the writers should have manufactured more action; it's just that I'm not sure this miniseries needed to be as long as it is (7 hours+). The first three or four installments could arguably have been compressed without hurting the impact of the miniseries as a whole. Most of the more significant ramifications of the Marines' (and the coalition as a whole) presence in Iraq don't really manifest themselves until parts 6 and 7. While I remember those parts very well, parts 1-4 kind of blend together as one really long episode (and not just because I wasn't taking notes). This feeling of sameness contributes to Generation Kill making it seem longer than it actually is.
What does Generation Kill build to? Does it have to build to anything, or is accurately depicting a Marine battalion enough? I would argue that while this miniseries undeniably has an air of authenticity (I say "air" because, having never served in the Marines, I can't directly attest to the miniseries' verisimilitude or lack thereof), that alone isn't enough to elevate Generation Kill to the pantheon of great war films. While Generation Kill does provide the viewer with some decent moments-the platoon's reaction after learning that Trombley has accidentally shot two Iraqi children; the sight of Iraqi civilians being turned back by 1st Recon despite having been promised protection by leaflets dropped in the country by the U.S. military-these moments happen so infrequently that by the time we reach the latter parts of the miniseries, which deal with 1st Recon's interaction with Iraqis in a chaotic Baghdad along with the Marines' withdrawal from the city, it feels too sudden and calculated. Whereas the first several installments of the miniseries work hard to plunge the viewer into the thick of the grunt's life with little to no sentiment, pretension or exposition (there's a reason a booklet with not only a guide to the chain of command but also a glossary of Marine jargon is included with this package), these later parts, while not bad at all if taken on their own, just come off as the producers telling us, "All right, everybody, here's what you need to take away from Generation Kill." I guess I just wanted a more gradual buildup to that point.
The series goes a long way toward redeeming itself with the final scene, which admittedly feels somewhat contrived but is still very powerful. First Recon Marines gather around a laptop to watch home movies of the battalion's time in Iraq. At first, this sequence is kind of silly, with the Marines all laughing and prodding each other as they relive fun moments of joking and horsing around. But as the images turn to those of destroyed vehicles and bloodied bodies, the Marines gradually begin to move away from the computer until the only one left is Trombley, for whom the footage appears to serve as a motivator and not a downer. It's a chilling way to end the miniseries.
Something else that didn't work for me about Generation Kill was the overemphasis on the officer-grunt conflict. While Wright's book certainly doesn't hesitate to show officers such as Capt. Dave McGraw (derisively referred to as "Captain America" by much of 1st Recon) and Capt. Craig Schwetje (dubbed "Encino Man") in a bad light, for the miniseries, the writers (including Wright himself, I realize) kind of oversell the point. The "us vs. them" dichotomy created by the writers is likely in place to generate more viewer sympathy for the grunts, which really isn't necessary in the first place. The more interesting (and certainly more disturbing) aspect of the incompetence of Captain America and Encino Man is that it places the Marines of 1st Recon in danger, like when Captain America orders some of his men to tag a minefield with chem-lights-in the middle of the night.
The preceding paragraphs probably make it seem like I'm pretty down on Generation Kill, which is most certainly not the case. Despite its shortcomings, Generation Kill is still a well-crafted production with a lot going for it, beginning with the almost universally outstanding cast. There are a lot of speaking parts in Generation Kill, but the writers generally limit their focus to the characters traveling in Colbert's Humvee (namely, Person, Trombley and Colbert himself), along with Lt. Fick, 1st Recon commander Lt. Col. Stephen "Godfather" (so called because of his raspy voice) Ferrando (a terrific Chance Kelly), the outspoken Sgt. Antonio "Poke" Espera (Jon Huertas) and a few others. While none of the Marines in Generation Kill is depicted in the kind of detail presented in Wright's book, the actors all do admirable jobs with their characters. Favorite performances of mine include Alexander Skarsgård as Colbert and Stark Sands as Fick. Skarsgård vividly brings to life the sarcasm, cynicism and dedicated professionalism of Colbert as described by Wright on the printed page, and Sands perfectly embodies the intelligent Fick, constantly looking out for his men while clashing with the decisions his commanding officer (Encino Man) makes. Other notable performances come from Michael Kelly (who recently turned in a noteworthy supporting performance in Clint Eastwood's Changeling) as Capt. Bryan Patterson, the levelheaded commander of 1st Recon's Alpha Company, and Rudy Reyes, who actually plays himself. The only performance that really didn't work for me was Neal Jones' 1st Recon Sgt. Major Sixta. While his histrionics-filled, English-language mangling mannerisms may well be accurate to the real person, in this miniseries he comes off as a bizarre caricature and seems out of place.
The production values on Generation Kill are also outstanding. The seven parts of the miniseries were helmed by Susanna White and Simon Cellan-Jones, experienced directors both, and they bring an unfussy, appropriately gritty look to the miniseries. The camerawork is often intimate and handheld but never choppy or disorienting, even during the action sequences. While the Marines themselves may not have been sure what was going on during some of their firefights, the viewer should experience no such difficulties thanks to the work of Generation Kill's crew.
HBO has also put together a very solid DVD package for Generation Kill. The miniseries is spread out over three discs, with parts 1-3 on disc one, parts 4-6 on disc two, and part 7 and bonus features on disc three.
In terms of sound and image, despite some graininess at times, the video quality of Generation Kill is quite good. The sound is even better; everything from the rumble of Humvees across the desert to the firing of a .50 cal machine gun is rendered in striking clarity. In addition, the frequent chatter of the series, be it person-to-person or over radios, is always audible.
HBO didn't skimp on extras, either. Episode commentaries are included for every installment except part 6. It's not the same people from track to track, either; part one has David Simon, Ed Burns and Susanna White; part two has Burns and producer Andrea Calderwood; part three has Evan Wright, Stark Sands and Benjamin Busch (a Marine who plays an officer on the miniseries); part four has Alexander Skarsgård, James Ransone and Simon Cellan-Jones; part five has Wright and military advisors/actors Erich Kocher and Jeffrey Carisalez; and part seven has Simon and producer George Faber. These tracks are very informative (although they can get a bit dry) and are worth a listen. Each installment except part one has a "previously on" clip that can be played to catch you up on previous episodes. Each part also has a "mission map," a brief animated segment tracing the Marines' path for that particular episode.
The remainder of the bonuses resides on disc three. The first, "Generation Kill: A Conversation with the 1st Recon Marines," runs about 23 minutes and has Wright moderating a conversation with Colbert, Person, Reyes and several other Marines. While I wanted more specific conversation about what the Marines liked (and didn't like) about the miniseries, this is still worth watching. Up next is the 25-minute "Making Generation Kill," which, given its relatively short length, is a good overview of the production. Following this, there is "Eric Ladin's Video Diaries," a half-hour featurette with actor Ladin (who plays Cpl. Chaffin) that takes the viewer from before the start of the shoot to the production's wrap. This was actually a lot more interesting than I thought it would be, and provides a nice look at the production from an actor's viewpoint. Finally, there is a collection of "Deleted Dialogues," which is composed of five clips of conversation between various characters on the miniseries. Each clip runs about 2-3 minutes.
With Generation Kill, David Simon, Ed Burns, and co. have crafted a look at the Iraq War that can be uneven and tedious at times, but is very well filmed, directed, and acted. HBO's DVD package also helps Generation Kill considerably. I don't know that I would recommend a blind buy, but this is worth at least a rental for anyone interested in a stark visceral depiction of the war in Iraq.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 470 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode commentaries
* Deleted dialogues
* "Generation Kill: A Conversation with the 1st Recon Marines"
* "Making Generation Kill"
* "Eric Ladin's Video Diaries"
* Mission maps
* "Previously on" promos