Monday, July 21, 2008

With "Generation Kill," Simon and Burns appear to have done it again

For David Simon and Ed Burns, it's all about sticking to formula.

Unflinching realism + symbolism-heavy writing/dialogue + humor to make the horror more bearable = classic TV. It's earlier yet in "Generation Kill," a seven-part miniseries about the beginning stages of the Iraqi war, but if the first two episodes are any indication, it appears that Simon and Burns have created a third masterpiece for HBO. Their 2000 miniseries "The Corner" is in the Hall-of-Fame, and "The Wire" is considered by many to be the Michael Jordan of television dramas. "Generation Kill" is different in scope than those two, but after two weeks it has just as much poential.

Simon has spoken in interviews about using humor to make the dread in his shows sufferable. Think Omar's lighthearted one-liners or William Moreland's Bunkisms. They were often funny in a show that was otherwise anything but. Well, this show is twice as funny, and it has to be. "Kill" is twice as depressing as "The Wire."

I've never been to war, but from what I hear it's pretty terrible. I hear about the large casualty figures on the news, see pictures of torn-apart bodies on the Internet. I watched James Gandolfini interview disfigured war heroes on "Alive Day Memories," and I watched Tom Hanks and his squadron search for Matt Damon in "Saving Private Ryan." The latter is considered an unfailingly realistic look at the atrocities of World War II. It takes us inside the action and allows us to experience it vicariously, through the actors. "Kill" does the same thing.

On the one hand, these marines are fighting for our country, even though at this point it's too early to say definitely how they feel about that as a group. Whatever. We are at war, allegedly to protect us from terror, and these American men are putting their lives on the line. They are our heroes, period.

But I wouldn't say that I can necessarily relate to them. None of them are eager to die, but all of them are comfortable with combat. Some of them are very professional and realize that they are in Iraq to do a job, and treat is as such; it's not fun and it's not personal. These are the soldiers that command respect.

Yet there are probably even more that are legitimately excited by the chance to kill without consequence and think the site of a dead body is totally awesome, brah. You have to question the character and morals of some of these men. Not all of them are likable.

Or perhaps these seemingly heartless marines have simply psyched themselves out, to prepare themselves for the hellish atmosphere, and the task at hand. Kill. If you are going to go to war, you had better throw sentiment to the wolves and assume the disposition of coldhearted killer. That's the less cynical interpretation (and the one I want to believe).

But like with "The Wire," Simon isn't telling you what to think. The story is there. It's laid out for you. Now do with it what you will.

Naturally, I root for the Americans to survive their missions without any casualties. Several characters carry the show and already we have become familiar with them. As they drive their Humvee through a hail of Iraqi gunfire, I find myself partially covering my eyes, hoping that none of them are injured or killed, and that they take out the bad guys trying to end them.

But when I see a dead Iraqi girl, her lifeless body on the side of the road with both of her legs blown off, it becomes harder to take sides. One of my favorite movies is "Unforgiven," directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, who attempts to sensitize and deconstruct the myth of violence that he helped create by showing us the toll that killing takes on a man's soul. "It's helluva thing, killin' a man," he explains to his young partner The Kid, who's visibly shaken after committing his first kill. "You take away all he's got, and all he's ever gonna have."

Other than at the sight of the little girl, the Marines on "Kill" seem unfazed by at best, enthralled by at worst, the inherent atrocitites of war. But enemy or no enemy, American or Iraqi, at the end of the day, aren't these all just dead people?

"Generation Kill" is a screen adaptation of a book of the same name written by journalist Evan Wright (portrayed by Lee Tergesen on the show), who experienced the first phase of the Iraq war up close and personal, took notes, and then wrote a hardover about it. So unless you've read the book (and I haven't), it's hard to gauge just how much Simon and Burns are trying to make a point about the state of the war and the country, and how much they're just trying to tell Wright's story. No matter. With "Generation Kill," they've created yet another powerful drama, and you should be watching.

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