Emmy Watch: Longform

HBO has launched a successful invasion of Iraq War projects on the tube

Can movie stars save longform?
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By 2008, the feature landscape was already littered with the corpses of several Iraq War movies. Not even such heavy hitters as Robert Redford, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep ("Lions for Lambs"), Paul Haggis ("In the Valley of Elah"), Brian De Palma ("Redacted") or Kimberly Peirce ("Stop-Loss") could staunch the bleeding as feature after feature struggled to stay vital at the boxoffice.

So what did HBO know that no one else did when, in summer 2008, it premiered "Generation Kill," the first of three Iraq War longform outings?

The secret to making an Iraq War movie, according to the storytellers, is not to make it about "the war" at all.

" 'Taking Chance' is not about Iraq," director/writer/executive producer Ross Katz says of the original movie that was the most successful in the ratings of the three projects. "I said, 'I don't want to make an Iraq movie.' " "Taking Chance," which debuted Feb. 21 on HBO, stars Kevin Bacon as Lt. Col. Michael R. Strobl, who escorts the remains of a fallen soldier, Chance Phelps, home to Wyoming. Based on the true story written by Strobl as a journal entry, the piece takes an intimate look at the final journey that every soldier killed in the line of duty makes, from the military mortuary in Delaware where the corpse is tenderly cleaned and dressed, to the hometown funeral, surrounded by the Marine's family.

While the movie takes place in America after Phelps' death and never depicts combat, producers were still not certain that the film would be immune to the malady affecting most Iraq War offerings.

"I was concerned that people wouldn't watch it because it related to Iraq," Katz says. "But what I found was that when you look into the eyes of a mother who has lost her child, there's no room for political dialogue. And I thought the only way I wanted to do ("Taking Chance") was if people could interpret it however they wanted."

But how do you avoid "the war" if you're making a miniseries that depicts Marines on the ground in Iraq, leading the very invasion itself? That is just the question writers Ed Burns and David Simon had to consider when making "Generation Kill."

"We figured, if you play it down the middle, there's enough cannon fodder for both sides to glom onto," Burns says. "This was not a propaganda piece."

And he's not alone in this opinion. In addition to the book of the same name, written by embedded reporter Evan Wright, which chronicles the experiences of Marines as they invade Iraq, the makers of "Generation Kill" relied upon the help of Marines who were actually present. One of those Marines was Staff Sgt. Eric Kocher.

"This series doesn't say the war was wrong; it doesn't say the war was right," Kocher says. "It's not politically charged. It doesn't have an agenda."

Kocher, who has done four tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, not only consulted on the accuracy of "Generation Kill" as a first-hand participant in ground combat, but he also played Gunnery Sgt. Rich Barrett on the small screen. With experience both in the war and in filming a fictionalized account of the war, Kocher might be more qualified than anyone to hazard a guess as to why "Generation Kill" has been, by all rights, more successful than many theatrical releases dealing with the war.

"One reason is a lot of these (movies) are kind of over-dramatized for one thing," Kocher says. "They're trying to turn everybody into heroes or into kind of the opposite of being anti-war. There were really no heroes in 'Generation Kill.' It's just guys over there doing what they do best. And this series stays true to that."

There are, however, times when politics simply cannot be avoided, especially when making a miniseries about the rise and fall of Saddam Hussein. Such was the case with "House of Saddam," a four-parter that takes a look inside the gilded cage of Hussein.

"It was the specificity of the perspective that brought people to it," says director/writer/executive producer Alex Holmes. "We'd had an overload of reportage, but the promise of seeing something dramatized which you hadn't been able to get access to -- to go inside of walls which were previously closed -- was another reason why viewers were drawn to it."

All three of these projects, in fact, share that trait. "House of Saddam" takes an insider's view of Hussein's inner circle, even using archival footage and home movies from the presidential palaces. Similarly, "Generation Kill" gives a visual account of the very front of the invasion and of the unique Reconnaissance Marines, some of the most elite and highly trained members of the military.

"Even if there was no invasion, Evan (Wright) would still have a book," Burns says, "because this subculture of Recon Marines is so fascinating. All these alpha males in this highly compressed world makes for a great story."

More so, "Taking Chance" depicts an aspect of the war previously hidden. Since 1991, the Pentagon's no-photo policy has meant that images of coffins returning home from war have gone unseen. That policy was not overturned until February.

More than any of these reasons, it may just be the level of accuracy these pieces achieve that is making the real difference in audiences' responses. In "Taking Chance," Strobl was involved in every stage of re-creating his journey; for "House of Saddam," Holmes started interviewing Iraqis from every station in Iraqi society back in 2003; in "Generation Kill," a team of the same Marines depicted in the movie, not to mention the embedded journalist and book author, Wright, saw to it that every detail was re-created just as it was in reality.

"When I first read the scripts," Kocher says, "I was just laughing my ass off because I remember half the guys saying a lot of dialog that was written."

The projects also captured viewers. While "Generation Kill" had a modest premiere with more than 1 million viewers (keeping pace with the network's successful "Recount"), with the kickoff of "House of Saddam" following closely behind with 999,000 viewers, it was "Taking Chance's" 2 million viewers who made the original film the most-watched original movie to debut on HBO in five years.

Whether the subject is ultimately more comfortable on the silver screen or in longform television offerings, the writers and producers do agree on one thing: There's still more story to tell.

"The war in Iraq itself is just an aspect of a bigger conflict that is out there between cultures and political perspectives," Holmes says, "and I think it's the responsibility of film and television to address that."