Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Generation Kill

Generation Kill is the Iraq war mini series written by David Simon and Ed Burns based on the book by journalist Evan Wright

It’s only got 6 hours or so of telly to play with so it’s never going to be able to replicate The Wire’s range of characters and themes (there was more to the Baltimore drama than “Buy drugs, sell drugs”) but it does bring something new to the War Movie genre. And like The Wire, the dialogue is fantastic and the whole thing feels utterly authentic.

In a peaceable life I’ve worked my way through enough war films to get flashbacks. Each of those landmark films will have a scene or idea that brings something new or captures something different about war and the people caught up in it. And of course, other filmmakers, journalists and soldiers will pick up on it too. There’s an interesting podcast at with Patrick Hennessey a former Guards Officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who describes the moment when they were inadvertently and then deliberately recreating the swimming sequence in Hamburger Hill with Otis Redding as the soundtrack.

Generation Kill feels like it’s certainly seen it’s fair share of films

The first episode is hard work as the viewer can get disorientated by the amount of kit, characters and military slang. But stick with it. After all you had to with The Wire.

The dialogue shows up the social, and racial tensions amongst the United States Marine Corps and the (terrifying and inept) chain of command. As you’d expect from the writers of The Wire, the Military dialogue is baffling, funny, foul and poetically obscene. Whisky Tango (white trash) Marines (grunts) curse POG’ s (Person Other than Grunt). The owner of an untidy and non-regulation moustache (grown during the morale boosting, pre invasion moustache growing competition) is told to “Police that moustache”

There are a lot of characters to get used to but once it settles down, the series works because you get the claustrophobic view of the troops in the Humvee. This claustrophobia is one of the things that Generation Kill does differently. It’s a war film in a desert that feels like a submarine movie…and everyone likes a submarine film don’t they!

The commanding officers are as big a threat to their troops as the enemy and the unhinged Captain America is a war crimes investigation in waiting. Godfather is the Corleone voiced Lieutenant Colonel who lost his voice to throat cancer. A non-smoker. “I guess I just got lucky”, he’s actively trying to manoeuvre his men into risky and ill advised missions, like a zealous middle manager trying to commandeer the photocopier for the glory of his team

Inside the Humvee though it’s not much better. James Ransone (he played the excellent Ziggy Sobotka character in the second series of The Wire) is the Humvee driver speeding through Iraq on an over the counter stimulant called Ripped Fuel. He’s literally fighting a war on drugs. There’s the camel shooting farm boy who just wants to kill something, while Evan Wright is the Rolling Stone journalist who was only accepted by the troops when he told them he used to write for Hustler (“You wrote Beaver Hunt?”) The Iceman is the Sergeant, one of the elite Recon Marines and the only one of the bunch who actually knows what he’s doing…he just can’t believe he’s doing it with such a useless crew)

The night vision fire fights are tense, terrifying and wouldn’t have happened in earlier wars and the films made about them. It almost doesn’t happen in this one either as the troops don’t have enough batteries for their night vision goggles.

Vietnam was fought and lost on television and military chiefs have been trying not to let that happen again. However cheap technology means that troops themselves are filming it. Patrick Hennessey on the Word podcast describes how important these video diaries and home made films have become to troops. This runs right through Generation Kill too. Again this makes Generation Kill seem more relevant

The closing credits for each episode are genius. If you think of those classic TV sequences where the credits tell you about the programme itself, you’ could go from Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, to The Sopranos to The Wire. In an inspired less is more leap, the credits for Generation Kill are just radio transmissions, voices amidst busts of static.

Generation Kill is a contemporary war film about a contemporary war, with plenty of scenes that not only add to the war film genre but also made me glad I wasn’t there…and wished they weren’t there either.