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July 14, 2008

Can Generation Kill Succeed Where the Iraq War Movies Failed?

This weekend sees the debut of Generation Kill, a seven-part miniseries on HBO about the early days of the Iraq War, based on the book of the same name by Evan Wright.


Coming from executive producers David Simon and Ed Burns – the team behind HBO’s brilliant, recently concluded drama The Wire – the series comes with tremendous early buzz, and the first reviews have been positive. I haven’t seen the series yet, but based on its pedigree, its buzz and the reviews, I have every confidence that it’s going to be a quality piece of work.


“A quality piece of work,” however, is not a word that I would apply to most of the movies and TV series produced about the Iraq War thus far.


Since the war began more than five years ago, Hollywood has periodically given it the big-and small-screen treatment, almost entirely without critical or box office success. True, one reason the movies have failed to catch on is that the Iraq War is a depressing, downer subject – one that most Americans aren’t eager to even hear about on the news, much less pay to see in the theater. And just because Americans have turned against the war doesn’t mean they’re in the mood to see it denounced on screen.


But regardless, the Vietnam War was nothing if not a downer, too. But that didn’t stop a handful of visionary directors in the ‘70s and ‘80s from making stylistic, affecting masterpieces about the war in Southeast Asia.


Sure, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July were all released after the war was over. But with all the talent in Hollywood today, is there no one capable of deploying some creativity, and actually making a great Iraq War film?


Hollywood’s treatment of the war has tended way too far to the veterans-gone-crazy genre (In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss), to the preachier-than-thou (Lions For Lambs) to bad-deeds-by-troops (Redacted, Battle For Haditha.) The actual war, meanwhile, has seen little action in the films made so far, with their creators’ sledgehammer-like agendas getting in the way.  


The only two truly standout films made about Iraq have been two documentaries: Charles Ferguson’s 2007 No End in Sight, a talking head-filled look about what went wrong with the invasion and its aftermath, and James Longley’s 2006 Iraq in Fragments, a gritty look at what the actual Iraqis think about the war.


A TV series on FX, Over There, got at how soldiers and those on the home front were coping with the war, but it failed to find an audience and was quickly canceled. Lifetime’s Army Wives, however, has found quite a large audience.


From what I’ve read and seen about it in HBO’s making-of documentary, Generation Kill appears to avoid the problems of its predecessors. It’s actually about the soldiers and the war, and it largely avoids preachiness.


Simon, in interviews, has always come across as something of a left-wing firebrand. But if you watched The Wire, it conveyed its political viewpoints with masterful subtlety. The show believed deeply in its heart that the drug war is a failure and that institutions in American cities are perhaps irreparably broken. But over five seasons, it never came right out and said it out loud – it merely demonstrated it, through wonderful, three dimensional characters.


I’m sure Simon and Burns are hard-core opponents of the war. But I’ve got a feeling their mini-series isn’t going to beat us over the head with that viewpoint, and that it’s going to be more about its characters, and their humanity, than about the creators’ views. If it can manage that, it’s almost certain to be better than most other films about the war.


“Generation Kill” began airing Sunday on HBO, and will continue for the next six Sundays.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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