Sunday, June 21, 2009

the man comes around

finished watching HBO's generation kill the other night. it was a pretty big deal when first broadcast almost a year ago, but i just didn't catch up with it till now, mainly b/c the dvd fairy handed us a copy a while back.

you can read about it at the link above, or on wikipedia, but in a nutshell, it's a seven-part drama about the early days of the iraq war, as seen through members of bravo company, part of the marine corps' 1st reconnaissance battalion. based on embedded journalist evan wright's book of the same name, it was co-created and -written by the guys who made the wire, david simon and ed burns. remember embedded journalists? remember shock and awe? remember when the war was going to pay for itself and be over in a few weeks, months at the most? remember when you were considered a traitor for speaking out against it?

yeah, good times.

the miniseries brooks no sentiment, of course. and it is definitely a sibling of the wire, with that same hyper-verité vibe -- all clipped scenes, terse dialogue, semi-impenetrable lexicon, and deepening resignation.

the characters are many (28, wiki informs me ... no wonder it's hard to keep everybody straight), but probably the main guy is sgt. brad "iceman" colbert (alexander skarsgard), whose humvee squad hosts the fictional version of evan wright, usually just referred to as "reporter." (that's them in the picture above, brad in the middle and reporter with the camera.) scribe gets up-close and personal with both the war and the rest of the humvee squad, which also includes utterly insane driver ray (james ransone) and crazy deadshot mofo trombley (billy lush).

their platoon commander, lt. fick (stark sands), is richie cunningham-esque with his round baby face (although the actor was about 30 when he filmed this), so it kind of follows that fick is a stand-up guy. a little too idealistic for his own good, considering, but devoted to keeping the shit from rolling onto his guys, which is what a good leader does. he is totally outnumbered, however, by idiots.

b/c, just like at any job, the bosses are largely incompetents, often taking self-glorification into account as much as, if not more than, reaching the objective. but, unlike most jobs, the idiot bosses can quite literally get you killed. however, the grunts take this in stride ... i mean, they hate it, and they bitch about the morons in charge all the time -- and at one point, one even tells an officer to his face that he's incompetent. (actually, that was the corpsman, the navy medical personnel assigned to the group, but still.) but they just kind of roll their eyes, shrug, down more ripped fuel, and keep right on videoing everything while dealing with the crazy orders, not to mention the blind firefights, lack of proper equipment, endless waiting, food shortages, primitive conditions, health afflictions, and confusing local populace (who's the enemy? who's not?).

the videotaping leads to the marine-made movie that figures into the finale, accompanied by johnny cash singing his appropriately grim judgment-day ballad "the man comes around" (the title track from his 2002 album american iv: the man comes around), complete with quotations from the book of revelation and packed with biblical metaphors.

the show itself displays little patience with religion, and the dialogue is filled more with what mr. spock might call colorful banter: routine racist jibes, misogynist slurs, and homophobia. so, you've been warned. yeah, sure, that's what it's "really like," but i'm just sayin' -- some people might find that stuff a turnoff. for me, it was worth watching, but the constant objectification of women did feel like verbal battery at times. when the guys are tossing slurs at each other, at least it's a (usually goodnatured) battle of words. but there are no women around to give as bad as they got.

however, the irony is that it quickly becomes clear, as protocols are broken and the marines are forced to do things like abandon men they should've taken prisoner (men who will later be slaughtered by saddam's republican guard for surrendering), that the grunts are the ones who grasp the total fucked-ness of the situation, and who in their own way see the moral quagmire to come, long before anyone in charge could even admit there was a problem. so let's hear it for crude motherfuckers who know what time it is.

watching this series while the fucked-up situation unfolded (and continues) in iran added an extra layer of irony. we stomped into iraq and murdered the locals ostensibly to set them "free," and now we're helpless bystanders as the citizens of iran fight for their own freedom. i don't mean to suggest we should do something military, but there's been such intense debate even about what president obama should say and how he should say it. we're walking softly and keeping the big stick in the closet -- a far cry from the swaggering that helped bring this newfound sense of cautious conscientiousness into vogue.

still, for all its matter-of-fact toughness, generation kill has unexpectedly emotional moments that spring from the characters being rubbed raw at times. the lack of sentimentality in the story, and the way the viewer becomes absorbed into this world, give these moments an unbearably poignant intensity. you're pulled in -- partly b/c of the writing, with the characters revealed mostly through endless, often seemingly trivial or routine conversations and group sings while rolling in the humvees. partly b/c of how it is shot, with lots of tight inside-the-vehicle views, closeups on men and their weapons, tense two- and three-shots ... as well as sweeping vistas of the landscape and sky, and driveby views of the displaced people, the destroyed cities and villages. but also, for me, having to pay attention to the slanguage and acronomicon made it kind of like reading a tv show, which was pretty cool.

bravo company's mission does end -- well, not so much end as close the loop of an endless cycle -- and the series doesn't deal directly with the clusterfuck to come (one darkly wry recurring phrase is that the war's almost over). but it certainly foreshadows the oncoming mess, mainly as the troops connect the dots while they just keep sucking it up -- leaving prisoners behind, seeing civilians blown up, capturing foreign jihadists who entered the country after the u.s. invasion. the pattern is just forming for the grunts, but we see the all-too-familiar origins of what's been a dire, expensive, and seemingly never-ending part of our history for the last six years. and, all apologies to mr. cash, i don't see any justice on the horizon.

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