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Review: Generation Kill (2008)

Generation Kill (2008)

Directed by: Susanna White and Simon Cellan Jones

Premise: A television miniseries based on the book by journalist Evan Wright. Set during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Wright embeds with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the Marine Corps in the early months of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

What Works: There is an ironic disproportion between the length and breadth of the United States’ military adventures in the Middle East and the utter lack of motion pictures and television news coverage about it. Despite the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq now being among the longest conflicts in US military history, relatively few dramatic films have been made about them. But whatever might get produced in the future, it will be difficult to top Generation Kill, a seven part miniseries broadcast on HBO in 2008. The series was based on the book of the same name by Evan Wright and dramatized the real life experiences of Marines during the first few months of the invasion of Iraq. Generation Kill has a number of impressive qualities but one of its most compelling traits is its authenticity. The series is unsparing in its portrayal of life in a war zone and it captures warrior culture and specifically the experiences of Marines during the invasion. There are many details, such as the way the soldiers move and dress, the jargon they employ, and the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis that makes Generation Kill one of the best portraits of contemporary warfare. One of the constant themes of the series is the breakdown of equipment and the inadequacy of their supplies; this aspect of warfare is rarely dramatized in motion pictures but it adds a lot of realism to the series. Generation Kill’s honest approach to the material extends to its portrayal of the men which is sometimes unflattering. The men of the unit are flawed and even piggish with their nearly constant homophobia and racism, but Generation Kill is not a hit piece on the military. It plays as a group character study and its portrayal of these men goes beyond the clichés of the buddies-in-action formula. The soldiers of Generation Kill are not the idealized warriors of a recruitment flier; they are young men who have been placed in life and death circumstance and their expertise is matched by their youth and humanity. In that respect, Generation Kill is distinct not only among Iraq war films but within the entire war genre. It upends the way in which warfare has been traditionally dramatized and raises the bar for the genre.

What Doesn’t: Many of the qualities that distinguish Generation Kill are also likely to alienate its core audience. Fans of the war film usually look for stories that dramatize the popular mythology around combat: the bond between men at arms, the righteousness of self-sacrifice, the expertise of the professional soldier, and the spirit of patriotism. Generation Kill doesn’t satisfy those themes. In fact, it frequently refutes them. The tensions among the Marines, the confusion between the soldiers and the officers, technical malfunctions, and the moral ambiguousness of the mission sets Generation Kill apart from movies like American Sniper. The realistic style of the series also dampens its satisfaction as a piece of drama. Generation Kill does not have a clearly defined narrative shape; there isn’t a specific objective for the Marines to overcome as seen in movies like Sands of Iwo Jima. Generation Kill isn’t a series of action set pieces; there are shootouts, especially in the later episodes, but unlike the usual Hollywood version of combat, Generation Kill captures the axiom that warfare is “long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” That is the reality of the matter but the realism of Generation Kill makes it less dramatically satisfying than similar programs like Band of Brothers.

DVD extras: Commentary tracks, interviews, featurettes, deleted dialogue, and interactive features.

Bottom Line: Generation Kill is an exceptionally well made miniseries. It immerses the viewer in the invasion of Iraq in a way that makes us look critically at what Americans did there but Generation Kill also helps a civilian audience begin to understand the veterans’ experience.

Episode: #596 (May 29, 2016)