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REVIEW: 'Occupation'

The miniseries on BBC America depicts the relentless, nonsensical, heart-wrenching horror of the Iraq war unlike anything else that's been on television.


The war in Iraq has proven a Sisyphean task for cinematic storytellers. Films dealing with the subject have not found much of an audience, and HBO's "Generation Kill" was not a success. Network television has taken more of a backdoor approach, sending former war medics and soldiers into shows like "Grey's Anatomy," "NCIS" and "Mercy." These characters allow the writers to make a safe though still significant statement about Iraq: The physical and emotional experience of war changes a person irrevocably.

That is also essentially the message of "Occupation," a BBC miniseries that will air in its four-hour entirety on Sunday night. But writer Peter Bowker ("Viva Blackpool") admirably goes one step forward: This particular war changes people in specific ways.

Nothing you have seen on television will prepare you for the relentless, nonsensical, heart-wrenching horror "Occupation" depicts. Not bloody horror, although the many dead and wounded are depicted in stark realism. What moves Bowker, his characters and indeed the whole vicious dance in Iraq is the insanity of simply not understanding the people around you.

Caught in not so much a culture clash as a culture maelstrom, British soldiers dart among the rubble, dodging bullets for reasons that are unclear. From the opening incident, in which a young girl is almost fatally injured, to the final scene, Bowker refuses to take refuge in easy answers -- or any answers at all.

Seen through the eyes of three soldiers, the war in Iraq is a deadly mirror image of Shakespeare's magic forest, a place to which men are inexplicably drawn and, once there, incapable of escape.

Sgt. Mike Swift (James Nesbitt, last seen in the fabulous "Jekyll") radiates quiet decency from every understated gesture. He risks his life to stay with the wounded girl, gets her to a hospital and, when he learns there are not enough surgeons to help her, takes her to England, becoming briefly a hero soldier. But along the way, he falls in love with Aliya (Lubna Azabal), an Iraqi doctor, and soon Mike's wife realizes that there is more than one way to lose a husband in Iraq.

Cpl. Danny Peterson (Stephen Graham) is the stout and cocky British soldier Kipling lauded so often. Confident and unflappable in battle, Danny has no idea how to cope at home and soon he is trying to organize his old mates into returning to Iraq as private contractors (or mercenaries, as Mike calls them). He had risked his life for his country, why not do it for cash?

Lance Cpl. Lee "Hibbsy" Hibbs (Warren Brown) is the young idealist who believes firmly that the war is in the best interest of the Iraqi people. He returns with Danny to help set up a "risk management" operation in Basra.

Slowly but surely each man is stripped of his former life and forced to remake himself in the deadly and maddening confusion of war and politics. Mike's love for Aliya takes on epic dimensions; in her he sees proof that there is something worth fighting for in Iraq. Hibbsy is undone by the realization that just by befriending locals he endangers them, and Danny soon gives up any attempt to make decisions based on justice -- "There is no good here," he says at one point, "there's only worse and worser."

There are no saints in "Occupation" and little conventional heroism. In one of the more harrowing scenes, Hibbsy is kidnapped. Facing death, he weeps and tells his captors of how his father, a printer, would kiss him good night, smelling of tobacco and ink. "I was a quiet lad," he says. "So you see my life wasn't supposed to end this way."

The British, and Americans, appear to be doing more harm than good but mostly because their presence provokes such violence among the various factions. Through Aliya, we see the gradual oppression of women -- though she is a doctor, she is soon not allowed to speak to men, and even a friendship with Mike brands her a whore. In a climactic scene (that oddly enough echoes a similar moment in "The Sound of Music"), Mike sees a young acquaintance who has recently joined a murderously conservative group. "You're not one of them," he says, only to be proven tragically wrong.

These are not stories with happy endings, but "Occupation" is unexpectedly uplifting in its bravery and humanity. Nesbitt, Graham and Brown brilliantly take their characters to hell and back without losing the slender but undeniable essence of who each man is. Watching "Occupation," it's not surprising that so many veterans, of Iraq and all wars, are unable to resume their "normal" lives. It's surprising that any of them do.




Where: BBC America

When: 5 and 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: Not rated

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