"Gentlemen, from now on we're going to have to earn our stories."
-- Sgt. Brad "Iceman" Colbert, "Generation Kill"
The best movie of the summer isn't on the screens of your local multiplex, it's on HBO. And it ends this Sunday.
"Generation Kill" is a miniseries based on Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright's non-fiction account of his ride with a Marine reconnaissance patrol during the first 40 days of the Iraq war (produced by David Simon and Ed Burns, the guys behind "The Wire"). It's funny, profane and scary. It's at its best when it captures the simple tedium of war as the Marines drive and wait and drive some more and wonder if they will ever see action.
When I've tried to describe the series to friends, I tell them that the thing it does best is to put you inside that Humvee with those Marines. You listen to them talk and boast and chatter endlessly. The radio spits out bulletins and orders. The Marines talk about their fears and frustrations. They stop to take a shit beside the road (no flush toilets for these guys). And, every once in a while, bullets slash through the night or an explosion rips the calm of a village.
When Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" came out, William Arnold, our film critic at the Seattle P-I, said that he thought it was a new way of presenting a war, that the film simply put you in the middle of of the battle and let you experience it as the soldiers did. "Generation Kill" owes much to Spielberg (the first 20 minutes of "Private Ryan," I think, may be the most significant contribution to film he has made). No John Wayne heroics or plot lines here, just guys trying to do their job and stay alive (and sane) in a very bad place.
The episodes start quietly and move through the mundane until the fight begins. Handheld cameras put you in the middle of the action. It's confusing, just as I imagine a real battlefield is. And sometimes, mistakes are made, just as on a real battlefield. At the end, you're shaken and confused and profoundly moved.
The director Sam Fuller once said that the best way to make a war movie would be to take shots at the audience every once in a while to make them feel what it's like to be in the middle of the real thing (but he admitted that might be bad for business). "Generation Kill" comes surprisingly close to doing that. In the end, the guys in the Humvee are heroes not because they are Rambo or super patriots, but because they simply survive this badly managed invasion, are there for their buddies, and come out with their dignity intact.
It's an amazing series and I'm sad to see it end. If you don't have HBO, look for it on DVD in a few months.
Elvis Mitchell's radio show, The Treatment, has a great interview with Susanna White, the Brit who directed the first three episodes and the last one.
UPDATE: The last episode just finished airing. I may write more about it later. Among the many things that struck me, one was that, like another great anti-war film, "M*A*S*H," "Generation Kill" ends with a football game. But where Robert Altman played that scene for laughs, the game in "Generation Kill" becomes a reflection of the Marines' anger and frustration with the war and with each other. Fists fly and finally someone says, "Maybe we shouldn't play football anymore." Amen.
And then the episode ends with a video (some of it actually shot by Marines in Iraq) set to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around." As Star-Ledger blogger Alan Sepinwall notes, it's almost a cliche but you have to give "Generation Kill" a pass because the song is such a perfect fit.