What would HBO's "The Wire" look like if it went to war in Baghdad instead of Baltimore? Probably something like "Generation Kill," an unsettling, distinctive, utterly riveting seven-part miniseries that captures the surrealistic nuts and bolts of launching a war better than any project in recent memory.
Leave it to the "Wire" team of David Simon and Ed Burns to get it right. In adapting an award-winning book documenting the beginning of the Iraq War by Rolling Stone correspondent Evan Wright -- the journalist embedded with the Marines of the elite 1st Reconnaissance Battalion -- Simon and Burns, in tandem with directors Susanna White and Simon Cellan Jones, bring the conflict to vivid life in a way that's at once disorienting and bizarrely seductive.
It's not about violence and killing so much as the language, the camaraderie, the chronic confusion on the ground and the gradual transformation of relative innocents into hardened, hair-trigger cynics. The result is as agonizing as it is effortlessly realistic.
"Kill" is less interested in heroes and villains than it is tossing the drama up onto the screen and letting us sort it out for ourselves. It gives the audience huge credit for making its own heads and tails, a hallmark that also infuses "Wire." But unlike that series, "Kill" can be picked up anywhere along the way and still feel as satisfying.
Credit Simon and Burns for creating characters who are more than mere faceless noncommissioned officers and commanders getting lost amid the smoke and bullets. The standouts include Alexander Skarsgard as the strong-but-silent Sgt. Brad Colbert, "Wire" alumnus James Ransone as blabbermouth Cpl. Ray Person and Lee Tergesen of "Oz" fame as Wright, the Rolling Stone scribe whose gripping firsthand account made it all happen (and who serves here as a consulting producer).
What's fairly amazing about this unflinching mini isn't merely how it grows more layered and complex as it moves along. It isn't even that it manages to remain politically neutral (relatively, anyway) throughout. It's that it manages to so easily hold the audience in its thrall while simultaneously evoking a vibe of, "There's somethin' happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear" (to quote the immortal Buffalo Springfield).
Rarely has the sheer randomness and perplexity of conflict been better portrayed. It showcases how the first push into Iraq wasn't at all about kicking butt and "Mission accomplished" but basically sorting out what from who, which didn't necessarily grow any clearer by the end of the first 40 days of the war in 2003 -- which is where "Kill" ends.
You smell the sweat and sense the intense, overwhelming boredom broken up by moments of sheer terror. You feel as if you're on a ride-along and embedded in that Humvee yourself, treated to the cocky bravado, the profanity-laced interaction, the raunchy bonding and the life-and-death assessments made out of a persistent sense of fear and dread.
As illustrated here, these guys went to war with substandard equipment, ever-changing assignments and wrenching uncertainty in trying to distinguish innocent civilians from murderous insurgents. Bolstered by superb acting and first-rate direction and cinematography, "Kill" delivers the goods in ways both unexpected and rewarding.
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