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Generation Kill is a 7 part American mini-series, that has just finished showing on the FX channel, which follows an elite group of Marines from the First Recon Battalion through the first 40 days of the assault on Iraq.
The credentials for Generation Kill made it essential viewing in our house. It is the latest offering to hit the UK TV network from HBO, the US TV production company who brought us The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire. HBO have been lauded by many as moving television into a new realm, where it competes on an equal footing with high quality cinema. Generation Kill was written by David Simon and Ed Burns, the team behind The Wire, a stunning series that followed the drugs in Baltimore from the highest level of politics, through the ranks of the police, to the barons, the dealers and the addicts. Generation Kill was adapted from the prizewinning book by Evan Wright, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who was embedded with a battalion from the US Marine Corps during the 2003 assault on Iraq.
If the subject matter of following a unit of US marines through their experiences in Iraq was not appealing (and as a 37 year old English mother of 2, I am probably not the target audience), then the promises of excellence from these credentials just made it impossible to ignore.
The series really shows up the sense of chaos: one mission follows another, without any apparent clear progression or end target, the men complain about their lack of equipment, the orders that come down are sometimes clearly ill-considered, decisions being made away from the frontline and without the appropriate information. The frustration of the marines is palpable, for the audience this is a real eye opener.
It takes a while to identify with the characters. The characters are all in uniform, they might get called by their name, their rank or a nickname, the program treats you like a fly on the wall, never formally introducing you or slowing the dialogue so you can keep up or explaining what the military jargon actually means. All of this means that the characters slowly emerge, their personalities only gradually coming out as we follow their reactions to the events that follow. There are, however, some very strong, if understated characters.
First Recon’s Bravo Company is led by Sgt Brad Colbert, otherwise known as Iceman, who is tall and lean, quiet, disciplined, principled and experienced. His driver, Ray, who served with Brad in Afghanistan, is small and wiry and never stops talking, entertaining and irritating his passengers in equal measure with his random and funny views on just about everything. The platoon commander, Lt. Nathaniel Fick, is intelligent and steadfast, getting himself into trouble when he questions commands from his superiors that to him are clearly flawed or self-interested. His frustration grows as the series progresses and the mutual respect between Brad and Nathaniel allow the audience to trust their judgment and understand the shortcomings of superiors and peers who are driven by ambition and self-preservation, rather than by ‘doing the right thing’ or even just doing what they have been trained for.
None of the actors are big names. I’ve seen only one of them before – the actor who plays Ray appeared in Season 2 of the Wire. The performances are excellent – subtle even when they are incredibly brash.
In the same way as the Wire did, watching Generation Kill makes you feel like you are actually there in the thick of it. This is achieved in a number of ways:
Firstly, nothing is ever explained to you. In other words, there are no corny plot set ups, no simplification of military jargon, no narration. Yes, you have to concentrate if you are watching, but you do feel more like a fly on the wall than a TV viewer and you are still able to follow the plot and understand the subtexts, even if you don’t fully understand everything in the dialogue.
Secondly, there are no Hollywood style set ups, no moving soundtrack to tell you that a scene is dramatic or moving or exciting. Indeed, there is no soundtrack at all. The episodes open and close with titles accompanied by footage from radio exchanges. The only music is the singing of the troops themselves, who seem to enjoy a good singalong.
I admit that I have absolutely nothing in my experience bank that bears any resemblance to what the soldiers are going through. I have, however, read reviews on Amazon several of which are by servicemen who served in Iraq who are amazed at how true to life it is and also how much they enjoyed watching it. If ever there was a commendation, this would have to be it.
Generation Kill is not overly sentimental or judgmental, there doesn’t appear to be any message, it is just what it is and that in itself is quite extraordinary and at times very disturbing.
Having watched this episode of recent history unravel on the news, I had not given much thought to the troops themselves. Here in the UK the media was far more preoccupied with the politics of the situation and the rights and wrongs of being there than of the way that the operation itself was being executed. Then, of course, came the images of torture and mistreatment at Abu Ghraib, which cast a shadow over the whole campaign. Generation Kill does not try to right any wrong, it does not paint a picture of a group of irreproachable young men or of victims, but it does make you think about the conflict from a different perspective and consider the different motivations of the people involved on the ground.
Most of all, though, it opens your eyes to the shocking events and injustices mostly suffered by Iraqi civilians.
I would thoroughly recommend this series to any one who enjoysserious drama. The acting and the writing are both excellent. It is at once incredibly disturbing and moving, but there is also humour and humanity, making this a compelling and very watchable series.
The DVD was released in the UK yesterday, 9th March and is available on Amazon at £27.98. There are 7 episodes of an hour each (75 minutes on FX with ads included). I am quite surprised by the 15 Certificate - I would have expected it to be an 18 given the adult nature of some of the content. I have based my review on the series on TV, not the DVD and cannot offer much more in terms of extras on the DVD.