"Observe everything, admire nothing,"- Lt. Nate Fick advises his platoon of First Reconnaissance Battalion Marines as they're on the move in hostile territory during the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. As the "tip of the spear"- rolling toward Baghdad in lightly-armored humvees, Fick's warriors have every reason to be wary, or "stay frosty,"- as team leader Sgt. Brad Colbert similarly counsels. Fortunately, such heads-up guidance also appears to have motivated the creators of Generation Kill to tell First Recon's story without capitulating to the preachiness and artifice that have deep-sixed so many other depictions of the war.
Last Sunday night HBO aired the seventh and final episode of the landmark miniseries, which is based on the novel of the same name by Evan Wright and portrays the invasion of Iraq from the perspective of the Marines of First Recon, with whom Wright was embedded as a reporter for Rolling Stone. (The magazine originally published Wright's account as a three-part series titled "The Killer Elite"- in June 2003.)
Shortly before the screen version of his chronicle aired, the author expressed an awareness of claims that American audiences suffer from "Iraq war fatigue,"- such as an Army Hollywood liaison's suggestion that "the public is rejecting"- dramatizations of the conflict that too often "feel didactic or inauthentic."- Speaking to an audience of TV critics, Wright recognized that "[w]hen Americans see the Iraq war as an entertainment, they're afraid they're going to be lectured to about how bad the war is or about our politics there."- He added: "We don't do that,"- contending that such political heavy-handedness was not the goal of his collaboration with Generation KillThe Wire. executive producers/writers David Simon and Ed Burns, co-creators of HBO's now-iconic series
"I have a lot of strong opinions about the war,"- admitted Simon, noting that "they really don't have a place in this piece. Nor do the opnions of Ed Burns."- Comparing Wright's book to Dispatches, Michael Herr's seminal Vietnam reportage (""-it's that good"-), Simon judged that like himself and his partner, Wright also managed to restrain any political viewpoints that might have biased his script contributions to the miniseries.
"All that said,"- Simon added, "what emerges is the picture of an increasingly imprecise and problematic conflict."-
The epic popularity of The Wire failed to imbue Simon and Burns with superstar expectations for Generation Kill's ratings. ''I'm sure the HBO executives might be concerned about them,"- Burns commented shortly before the series aired, "but I have no feeling for the numbers at all. If I did, The Wire might have been different."- In terms of numbers, episodes one through six of Generation Kill averaged 3.5 million viewers per week, placing its popularity on par with reruns of the series According to Jim, according to Salon TV critic Heather Havrilesky. "But then,"- as Havrilesky ponders, "who wants to be reminded once a week that five years ago, the patriots of this great nation respectfully and politely followed our honorable president into a devastating, long-term, no-win war overseas?"-
It may be argued that many viewers opting for such a reminder were those for whom "Iraq war fatigue"- has not exhausted a desire to see Iraq war artistry evolve toward healing America's wounds from the conflict""those of her veterans first and foremost. But it's worth pointing out that Generation Kill wasn't produced for the advancement of a cinematic genre or for the entertainment of those who spent the past seven Sunday nights watching it. Fortunately for Iraq war artistry, the raw nobility and unflinching realism of Generation Kill was created for the benefit of the Marines whose complex and vital story it brings to life.
"We made the movie for them,"- Ed Burns explained in an interview with Havrilesky. "The scariest showing we had was in front of them. When they thought it was what their world was, we were very pleased; we knew we had done what we were supposed to do."- Burns, a Vietnam vet, couldn't have been too surprised by the fact that Generation Kill passed muster with the Marines, however, as he hired many from among First Recon's former ranks to assist in making it""from senior military adviser Eric Kocher to Rudy Rayes, who portrays himself in the miniseries. Combined with script-writing contributions of Evan Wright, this eyewitness input was integral to making Generation Kill "the first Iraq War movie to aspire to something close to documentary realism,"- as Ethan Brown rightly declared in a review for Mother Jones titled "Can David Simon's Generation Kill save the Iraq War Movie?"-.
Brown's review applauds the downplaying of overt politics that separates the film from the "murky, message-driven"- depictions of the war offered previously. According to Brown, the "shaky, nervous intensity"- of Generation Kill is due in no small part to the journalistic ethos of David Simon, who characterizes his ethic as a drive to "write for the people you are telling the story about, convince them that you've got the story right, and then everyone else will follow." Whether or not the audience likes the characters they follow is meaningless, in Simon's view, because the Marines "are doing what they're trained for. They're not asking for forgiveness, and none need be given." Like his partner, Ed Burns, Simon's primary concern is that the warriors themselves will recognize the "core values of the piece"- as fairly and accurately reflecting what they experienced during the invasion.
"I don't give a f--k about our audience,"- Simon told Brown. "I believe in the story itself."
"Tell us, as they say, something we don't know"-
Though it's obvious that they couldn't care less, Generation Kill's creators have been critically greeted as liberators for their affirmative answer to Evan Brown's central question as to whether it's "even possible to make a good movie about a war that's still being fought."- And the arguments of their detractors only seem to underscore the genre-saving graces of the team's observational method.
The most prominent negative review of the miniseries, Nancy Franklin's in The New Yorker, also presents the most revealing criticisms of its subject matter:
However you judge the response of American news organizations during the early days of the war, they certainly made those days vivid to viewers, and they helped us understand the terrible significance of the resistance the Marines faced ["-] I don't see anything to be gained by retracing the path from Kuwait to Baghdad. Tell us, as they say, something we don't know.
What we didn't know was these particular Marines in their natural combat environment, unfiltered by the likes of Geraldo Rivera scratching maps in the sand or Ollie North reporting, as episode six of Generation Kill points out, on a Marine Reserve unit's unjustified destruction of an entire village and "filming the whole f--kin thing like it was the turning point in the f--kin war."-