Here we are in year six of the Iraq war, which has receded in the media to a static-filled hum of casualty figures and reports of new advances in improvised weaponry. If it takes a re-created reality to make us think concretely about what's happening there, and has been happening there, so be it.
Steven Bochco tried it a couple of seasons back with "Over There," half successfully, but it lasted only one season. And now David Simon and Ed Burns ("The Wire") have adapted Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright's book "Generation Kill." The HBO show recounts in seven parts the seven weeks Wright spent with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion on the front lines of what prematurely came to be known as Operation Iraqi Freedom.
It is a straightforward and remarkably thorough adaptation of the book, shot without stylistic frills in a way that reflects Wright's own carefully neutral prose -- he doesn't use a lot of adjectives and for the most part leaves the colorful color commentary to his subjects. (Simon and Burns, and their directors Susanna White and Simon Cellan Jones, also avoid the over-emphatic faux-documentary style pioneered by Bochco.)
The drama is all in the staging and cutting, and in the almost musical alternation of long stretches of relative quiet with passages of brilliantly rendered violent action. The camera work rarely calls attention to itself. There is no music apart from what the soldiers sing themselves as they ride along (and Johnny Cash singing the apocalyptic "The Man Comes Around" over the last minutes of the last episode).
At the same time, whenever actors are involved and decisions made about camera placement and film editing, something happens. The producers have taken obvious pains to make their simulacrum "realistic" -- three of the people portrayed in the film served as technical advisors, and one, Rudy Reyes, plays himself -- and to keep their politics to themselves, but there are unavoidable layers of interpretation interposed between what happened in Iraq and what happens in your living room. (You can say nearly as much of the news itself.) And although I am not informed enough to say how closely Simon and Burns' vision of the war resembles the real thing, I do know that it's all the unreal stuff -- the persuasiveness of the filmmaking, the grace of the acting -- that makes "Generation Kill" work as a TV show.
Wright (played by Lee Tergesen, "Oz") is unavoidably a character in the series: He rode in the foremost, barely armored Humvee alongside the Marines who made the most vivid characters in his book: Sgt. Brad Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard), also known as "Iceman," the cool-headed team leader, angry that his men aren't being allowed to do the reconnaissance for which they have been expensively trained -- they're "perfectly tuned Ferraris in a demolition derby," he says -- and Cpl. Josh Ray Person (James Ransone), his overstimulated driver, who offers wry running comment on the madness around them.
But Wright himself is a dead spot: Although he's at the center of a couple of bits of comic business, his own observations and research have been put into other mouths, and things that were obviously said to him directly become the stuff of conversations in which he plays no part. There is a lot of expository dialogue in this thing, and it can sound forced.
It is a long way from Baltimore to Baghdad, but there are similarities between "Generation Kill" and Simon's earlier works, "Homicide: Life on the Street" and (also with Burns) "The Corner." There is a big cast -- too many to easily keep straight -- a lot of blown-out streets, and the theme of people not being able to do their jobs properly because people above them keep making dangerously bad decisions. (These inferior superior officers are played a little too clownishly.)
In part because it's hard to keep things straight, "Generation Kill" tends to play as a series of discrete events. I suppose an argument might be made that this mirrors the way that the constant threat of extinction, and subject always to a sudden change in (rarely explained) orders, makes one live in the moment. I don't think that was what the producers intended, but it works well enough for watching it.
Still, if there's little in the way of plot or character development, there is also a refreshing lack of cheap Hollywood irony -- nobody here gets shot just because some writer finds the moment poetic or wickedly unexpected. The ironies "Generation Kill" offers are more along: burning the village to save it, winning the war but losing the peace, the odd fact that a Marine without a war is a man with nothing to do. Even the sensible men here are anxious to "get in the game," to "be part of the show," as if war is a thing too good to miss. The crazier ones just want to shoot guns and blow things up.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)