If Judge Jennifer Malkowski is supposed to be part of this "generation," she'd better advance past the occasional swatted fly.
Our review of Generation Kill, published December 16th, 2008, is also available.
"Ain't the Hajjis gonna kill us, man. It's fucking command."
In 2003, journalist Evan Wright tagged along with one company of recon Marines who formed "the tip of the spear" in America's initial invasion of Iraq. Adapting Wright's book on the experience, Generation Kill, celebrated journalist-turned-TV-writer David Simon follows up his intensely acclaimed The Wire with this seven-part HBO miniseries. But can he depict America's war on terror as ably as he did America's war on drugs?
*Note: Images are taken from the standard DVD release and are not representative of Blu-Ray picture quality.
Facts of the Case
Generation Kill takes us inside the thin-skinned Humvees of these recon Marines during their few weeks of invasion action, detailing what transpires between their departure from Camp Mathilda in Kuwait and their arrival in freshly occupied Baghdad. We share Wright's (Lee Tergesen, Oz) outsider perspective as he comes to know the individual troops alongside whom he risks his life. There are far too many characters to single out here, but the men he (and we) becomes best acquainted with are those whose Humvee he rides in: stoic and principled Sgt. Brad "Iceman" Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård, True Blood), loud-mouthed goofball Cpl. Josh Ray Person (James Ransone, The Wire), and a rookie simmering with violence, Lance Cpl. Harold James Trombley (Billy Lush, The Black Donnellys). Ambushes, humanitarian situations, and lots of screw-ups from commanding officers are sprinkled throughout their journey, but the bulk of their time is spent teasing each other in the Humvees or goofing around in temporary camps while waiting for orders or an attack—whichever arrives first.
The seven parts of this miniseries—each a little over an hour long—are split among three discs, with non-commentary special features on disc three:
In the many calls David Simon and his collaborators have to make between favoring "reality" or favoring fiction on a project like Generation Kill, they seem to side with reality almost every time. They make that call in the way they write their teleplays, in the way they choose settings or procure props and costumes, and especially in the way they pace their stories and their near-total ban on non-diegetic music (music outside the world of the characters that only the viewer can hear, like a score or a montage song). Simon's tenacious commitment to realism is often commendable, most of all because he's depicting difficult and important events from the real world. This realist immersion made The Wire a true rarity on television: a fascinating, heartbreaking show that had the guts to expose the corruption, hypocrisy, futility and even the bureaucratic boredom of America's war on drugs, in Baltimore. The Wire was unlike every other action-packed, solve-the-case cop show on TV that cared more about entertaining fiction than realism. Watching The Wire, by contrast, felt like taking a sociology course in many ways, and yet it was totally compelling for almost all of its five-season run. With Generation Kill, Simon applies the same principles of journalistic realism and he even treats many of the same themes: corruption, hypocrisy, futility, and bureaucratic boredom. Unfortunately, this approach seems to make Generation Kill sputter and stall, not to energize the story like it did for The Wire. While interesting and informative, this series doesn't capture the strange, unexpected magic we're now primed to expect from David Simon.
Part of the problem is the pacing, which definitely favors reality more so than the needs of good fiction. Simon and co. clearly want to immerse us in the tedium of life as a real Marine rather than offer the explosion-every-five-minutes structure of typical war movies. That desire puts them up against the eternal writing problem, how do you fully convey boredom without boring your audience? Perhaps the answer is that you can't. If so, David Simon chose boredom over entertainment for this series, which might be edifying for those of us watching but isn't pleasant. It's especially unpleasant when sustained for over seven hours, which I personally found to be an awkward length for this project. It gives us time to attempt to get to know the many characters, but it also gives us time to get tired of the premise and tone. Generation Kill may have been tighter and more effective at about half this length and with about half this many characters.
Along with pacing, character was the other major weak point for me. Though I'm aware that each one of these guys represents a real Marine, the field of faces is just too crowded to absorb them all in any meaningful way. The writers seem to want us to discover the strengths and flaws of each individual, to gradually see them as complex and fascinating people. However, because they try to give significant character moments to so many soldiers, they all seem to get diluted until very few characters really stand out for the viewer—or at least for this viewer. No one in this crowd captured my attention the way that Omar, Kima, Bubbles, Bunk, or Freamon did on The Wire. As much as I hate to say it, especially because they're based on real people, I doubt that I'd remember anything about more than one or two of these characters if asked about them a year from now, and in this case I'd call that a mark of weak writing.
My last criticism is really more a warning for viewers than censure for the series' creators: Generation Kill's realism definitely includes a very raw and relentless depiction of the racism, sexism, and homophobia that these Marines incessantly spew. The citizens they encounter are referred to as Hajjis much more often than Iraqis and many of the Marines show a lot of hate and hostility for the country's people as a whole. Though there are very few women on screen at all, the troops burst into a ferocious chorus of harassment of (and insults against) the one American woman they encounter during their journey—a female soldier on a supply truck that's stopped at their camp. For better or worse, most of them seem too racist to sexually harass the Iraqi women they meet. On the homophobia front, it's a full eight minutes into the 470 minutes of this series before we hear the word "faggot," but the guys make up for this delay in full during the rest of the running time. At least there's a knowing joke about this topic, when one of them remarks, "Man, we Marines are so homoerotic. You ever realize how homoerotic this whole thing is?" I certainly don't mean to imply that the writers should have omitted this aspect of Marine life. If anything, it's brave for them to exhibit these alarming attitudes and then ask us to sympathize with the men who hold them. But if you're a kind, respectful civilian who isn't full of hate for any particular group of people, this Marine company feels like a pretty hostile social environment to spend more than seven hours. It's just not an experience that will appeal to all viewers, and it was certainly grating for me to endure.
Despite all my above complaints, Generation Kill does do a lot of things right and watching it will undoubtedly teach you something valuable about this war and about military life. The series brilliantly illuminates many of the horrors of war, both specific and eternal. When civilians get killed, some of the men are haunted by the guilt of hurting the people they think they're liberating, or by uncertainty about whether those killed were enemies or bystanders. Even when the Marines go out of their way to devise strategies for preserving Iraqi lives, their futile plans often backfire, as when a smoke grenade fired as a warning for an oncoming vehicle bounces off the pavement and fatally strikes an old Iraqi man in the back of the head. Every positive step with the civilian population seems to be followed by two steps back. Though these Marines are mentally tough as well as physically, we also see PTSD getting its roots into some of them—most prominently the paranoid officer nicknamed Captain America (Eric Nenninger, Malcolm in the Middle). Erupting vocally in fear at every confrontation with the enemy and mistreating peaceful Iraqi prisoners, he's clearly someone who has not survived this war unscathed. Yet for all his bumbling and mental instability, he surprises us with a persuasive reality check in "Stay Frosty": "To remain calm and stay in a place you think you will die—that, too, is the definition of insane. You have to become insane to survive in combat."
It's not just this one statement that makes us question the psychological health of these Marines or question the wisdom of the whole 21st century military culture they've been immersed in. The title of the series prompts us to question it all along, and many of the plot points and lines of dialogue emphasize the military's intention to turn these men into cold-blooded killing machines. Almost universally, these men want to "get some"—want to kill. An offhand conversation in "Get Some" finds two Marines chatting about how cool it would have been to fly the planes that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII: "Couple of dudes killed hundreds of thousands. That fuckin' rules." They all delight at rolling past enemy corpses, and everyone gets upset when a couple of trucks full of armed Iraqis turn back at their roadblock instead of proceeding to the slaughter. Sgt. Espera muses thoughtfully about this culture of killing near the end of the series: "My priest told me it's not a sin to kill if you don't enjoy killing. My question is, is indifference the same as enjoyment?"
Also, David Simon's (and perhaps Evan Wright's) perceptive cynicism about bureaucracy in all its forms allows the series to get in a lot of important jabs at the American military and how they treat their soldiers. We see higher-ups put their men in danger to pursue glory and medals, as when an officer orders the troops to abandon a supply truck full of their food and ammunition when stopping to change the flat tire might make them miss out on some action ahead, or when another officer calls in an air strike on a target dangerously close to the company's own position just to look "aggressive" to his commanding officer. Though the commanding officers obsessively enforce the company's grooming standards—spending much time on policing facial hair—they don't seem very concerned that their soldiers are being deployed without many basic supplies and with malfunctioning equipment. One Marine complains while trying to patch up a busted Humvee that "This is like Gilligan's Island, man. They're givin' us rocks and coconuts to make radios out of." Another cynically analyzes the supply problem by saying, "If marines could get what they need when they needed it, we would be happy and we wouldn't be ready to kill people all the time." These critiques of military priorities and lack of concern for the men on the ground made me really angry on the troops' behalf and very effectively brought home the real-world consequences of these stories we hear about impersonally in the news. Consequently, I found these moments to be some of the best in the series.
On an audiovisual level, Generation Kill is impeccably produced, with only a few blemishes in its Blu-ray presentation. Despite being shot in Africa rather than Iraq and having to computer generate many of its helicopters, tanks, and Humvees, the series feels completely real to they eyes and ears. Visually, it achieves an appropriately gritty look that still maintains sharp lines and a surprisingly vibrant color palette. The DTS-HD Master Audio track offered exclusively on this Blu-ray edition is a joy to listen to. Fully immersive in its construction, it surrounds the viewer with the ambient noise of a war zone: shots fired from different kinds of weapons, vehicle motors, explosions, and, of course, irreverent soldier chatter. I was especially impressed with how detailed the sound effects were in terms of direction, distance, and tone. I did notice significant problems with the black levels on many of the dead-of-night patrol scenes. A lot of these look grainy and washed out, and the Blu-ray version does little to improve upon the standard DVD's quality here. Elsewhere, though, upgrades in the visuals are noticeable on this Blu-ray edition, with a generally crisper picture and more striking colors.
The generous package of special features included with this set is much the same as that of the standard DVD, with one important addition: a glossary of terms, chain of command chart, and updating mission map that you can access directly while you watch the miniseries (just by using the directional buttons on your remote). A feature that would have been impossible for a standard DVD, this Blu-ray exclusive is immensely helpful and fun in the context of Generation Kill, which plops you down in the middle of this company without coaching you on their lingo, who all the characters are, or who's in charge of whom. I found myself frequently looking up terms. A couple of examples of what you can learn from these references: "Whiskey Tango" is an insult that means "White Trash" using the military's first-letter-matches code words, and taking over an "MSR" means capturing a "main supply route." The chain of command menus also offer handy cheat sheets for the series' many characters, with many of them listed with nicknames, pictures, ranks, and placement within the company. If you want to follow the plot of Generation Kill and you've never been in the military, you'll be pushing those directional keys often and be glad of this worthwhile feature.
The other extras are transplants from the original DVD release, but are pretty high-quality. Six episodes commentaries with various cast and crew (listed above with the episode titles) provide a comprehensive insider's look at the series. As with any large selection of commentaries (which are becoming increasingly common on television releases, it seems), only die-hard fans will want to listen to all six all the way through. If you're wanting to give one or two a try, the commentaries on parts one, two and seven provide your usual writer/director/producer perspective on the production, with details about things like location scouting, the budget, special effects, and scripting. Even though I found Simon to be a riveting in-person speaker when he visited UC Berkeley last year, I found his tracks and the one on part two a little humdrum after a while. Commentaries on parts three and five focus more on how the series matches up with the on-the-ground reality the Marines and Wright experienced, which I found more interesting, especially in part five's installment. It's fascinating, for example, to hear those who were present debate what really happened on the day an air strike was called in on a village that appeared to Bravo Company to only contain women and children. Commentary on part four is the comic relief, with the unsurprisingly animated James Ransone lightening the tone considerably. The 23-minute discussion with the real Marines of the story, moderated by Evan Wright, is worth watching, mostly for the fun of comparing the real guys to the ones who played them (except in the case of quirky Rudy Reyes, who played himself). The real Sgt. Espera is just as quotable here as he was in Iraq, too, with insightful comments like this one: "If you ride with the tip of the spear, you're gonna see civilians get killed…They train us to be fuckin' killers. And then grandma reads it and she's all upset, 'what happened to my boy scout Marine?'" The 25-minute making-of documentary is succinct and illuminating, with lots of interesting info about shooting the production in Africa and nice interview snippets with cast and crew. Tergeson voices a perceptive genre comparison that seemed to float around the production: "It's a road trip movie, basically. It's like a bunch of guys hittin' the road, stopping for food, stopping to sleep. But instead of fixing flats, there's ambushes." I got less from actor Eric Ladin's 30-minute video diary—which felt a bit too much like a wistful home movie of someone else's summer camp experience—and from the handful of three-minute deleted dialogues.
An awkward fit for its seven-hour timeslot, Generation Kill is an awkward fit in other ways, too: it'll be too much talk and not enough action for war movie aficionados, and its hyperactive efforts to remain politically neutral may frustrate those who want hard-hitting commentary on the war in question. But it's impossible to doubt its realism or its earnest attempt to illuminate the duties and lives of U.S. Marines during this invasion. If you haven't already been versed in "what it's really like" for the U.S. military in Iraq by one of the very good documentaries on the subject (The Ground Truth, The War Tapes), Generation Kill is well worth your time. Plus, with its stunning sound quality and invaluable glossary and chain of command reference features, this Blu-ray edition is definitely best the way to experience it.
Generation Kill believes that guilt is hard to judge in combat. The same holds true for this vaguely underwhelming series.
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