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Reviewed by Jason Zingale
eople been fighting over this bitch since ancient times, dawg. How many graves we standing on? Think about all the wisdom and science and money and civilization it took to build these machines. And the courage of all the men who came here. And the love of their wives and children that was in their hearts. And all that hate, dawg. All the hate it took to blow these motherfuckers away. It’s destiny, dawg. White man’s gotta rule the world.”
It’s not very often that you can write dialogue like that without it coming off as some sort of liberal commentary on the war in Iraq, but “The Wire” creators David Simon and Ed Burns do one better: they populate their entire series with it. “Generation Kill,” the HBO miniseries based on the book of the same name, isn’t very big on political commentary, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid. Thankfully, the show focuses more on the hierarchal politics of the military than of the government, and in doing so provides limitless opportunities for its ensemble cast of characters to wax philosophic. “The Wire” may have been a milestone in TV history, but “Generation Kill” isn’t far behind, thanks to its accurate representation of Marine life in post-9/11 Iraq. This isn’t the first time Hollywood has attempted such a story, but it’s the first time they got it right.
Lee Tergesen stars as Evan Wright, the Rolling Stone reporter who was embedded with the United States Marine Corps’ 1st Reconnaissance Battalion in 2003, during the first wave of attack on Iraq. Though he’s initially outed as a liberal pussy, the soldiers eventually warm up to him when they discover that he previously wrote for Hustler magazine. Still, despite his many interactions with the men of the batallion – including its commander, Lt. Col. Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando (Chance Kelly), so named for his gravelly voice – a majority of the story is centered on the soldiers he rides with in Bravo Company's lead vehicle. These include team leader Lt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård), who earned his nickname for being the embodiment of the Marine Corps mantra, “Stay Frosty”; motor-mouth driver Cpl. Josh Ray Person (James Ransone); trigger-happy newbie Lance Cpl. Harold James Trombley (Billy Lush); and timid gunman Cpl. Walt Hasser (Pawel Szajda).
Person refers to the Marine Corp as America’s little pit bull (“They feed us, mistreat us, and once in a while, they let us out to attack somebody.”), and for the most part, he’s right. Instead of doing what they were trained to do, the men of 1st Recon spend their days driving from city to city singing everything from Avril Lavigne to Dean Martin, fantasizing about J. Lo, and fighting for the right to grow mustaches – all while they wait, and pray, for the chance to get a real mission. Of course, even when they finally do get a mission, their superiors usually find a way to botch it up.
Godfather has his share of boneheaded moves throughout the early days of the campaign (including abandoning a supply truck filled with food and ammo in order to lead an assault on an airfield against an enemy army 20 times their size), but they’re nothing when compared to the actions of Bravo Company leader Cpt. Craig “Encino Man” Schetje (Brian Wade), whose Neanderthal-like incompetence has earned him few supporters within the battalion. The only man who might be worse is Bravo Platoon 3 leader Cpt. Dave “Captain America” McGraw (Eric Nenninger), a panicky militant whose nickname is meant to be ironic in every way possible. Bravo Platoon 2 leader 1st Lt. Nathaniel Fick (Stark Sands) would rather not know about the nicknames that his men call his fellow superiors, but he’s also the only one among the group who seems to have a head for military strategy. Unfortunately, he's not the one in charge, and when he speaks out of turn, he's disciplined for it.
The first episode, “Get Some,” is an excellent introduction into the world of 1st Recon, and it’s the first taste of just how poorly coordinated the attack on Iraq really was. Soldiers are forced to supply everything themselves (from batteries to gun turret shields) and the entire battalion is given only one translator for the invasion. The soldiers aren’t even informed about when they’re going to be entering Iraq, but when Pizza Hut is mysteriously delivered in the middle of the afternoon, they know that it’s going to be sometime soon. “Generation Kill” isn’t all about sitting around waiting, however, and though the action isn’t quite as prominent as some might expect, there are some great battles sprinkled throughout – namely in Episode Five, where Bravo Company gets ambushed during a night raid just outside of Baghdad.
Much like “The Wire,” “Generation Kill” drops you into the middle of the action with little explanation as to who’s who and what’s going on. As such, it takes a few episodes before you understand where each character fits into the story, as well the phonetic slang the soldiers use along the way. For instance, “Whiskey Tango” is “white trash,” “Oscar Mike” is “on the move,” and after Trombley kills two Iraqi boys in Episode Three, he earns the nickname Whopper Jr., because “baby killer” is to “BK” is to “Burger King.” It may sound complicated at first, but just like reading subtitles, it eventually becomes second-nature. The fact that it isn’t more difficult is all thanks to the top-notch writing by David Simon and Ed Burns, who keep things as accurate as possible while still making it accessible to a mainstream audience.
Nevertheless, without their great cast, those words would mean nothing, and while supporting actors like Stark Sands, John Huertas (as Sgt. Antonio “Poke” Espera) and Jonah Lotan (as the battalion doctor) all deliver memorable performances, it’s the men inside Bravo’s lead vehicle that really make the show what it is. Lee Tergesen and James Ransone, in particular, offer up some of the series’ funniest moments (whether it’s Tergesen's reporter running away from an enemy sniper in a serpentine fashion or one of Ransone’s many rants on why the military really invaded Iraq), while Billy Lush and Pawel Szajda excel as opposing sides of the solider spectrum. The real standout of “Generation Kill,” however, is Alexander Skarsgård, whose star-turning performance should not only earn him a few Best Actor nods, but a bright future in the industry as well. Here’s hoping Skarsgård isn’t the only one acknowledged for his work, because “Generation Kill” is a remarkable achievement that stands as one of the best (if not the best) miniseries ever made.
Special Features: HBO has always been pretty hit-and-miss with their DVD box sets, but the Blu-ray release for “Generation Kill” features a great collection of bonus material. Headlining the extras are cast and crew audio commentaries for six of the seven episodes (for some reason, one for Episode Six wasn’t recorded), and while they aren’t necessarily required listening, they do offer some nice insight into the making of the series. Other bonus features include an Evan Wright-moderated discussion with 1st Recon soldiers Brad Colbert, Josh Ray Person, Eric Kocher, Rudy Reyes, Antonio Espera and Mike Wynn; a 25-minute making-of featurette; actor Eric Ladin’s video diaries; and five deleted dialogues (in audio format only) that were most likely intended to be used over the end credits. The best of the bunch, however, is "Basic Training," a pop-up feature previously packaged as a 22-page booklet for the DVD version that includes a breakdown of the chain of command, a map of the unit's mission, and a dictionary of Marine slang and terminology. If you couldn't keep track of each character's rank beforehand, you'll have no problem doing so now that you can access the info during any episode.