'The Long Road Home': TV Review

Two knockout episodes, but the rest feels overly cautious.

NatGeo's Iraq War miniseries starring Michael Kelly, Jason Ritter and Kate Bosworth revisits "Black Sunday" through the eyes of various veterans.

Fourteen years after President George W. Bush ordered the first bombs on Saddam Hussein's Iraq as part of that country's invasion, the general consensus is that that ongoing conflict should never have been started and that Bush's stated goal of "regime change" was an arrogant, blood-soaked folly. Set in 2004, NatGeo's The Long Road Home gives voice to an early version of the protest against the war when the mother of a deploying soldier asks his superior why the military has invaded Iraq if the perpetrators of 9/11 are suspected to be in Afghanistan.

Based on ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz's book of the same name, The Long Road Home dramatizes a siege in Sadr City that came to be known as Black Sunday. How we understand the deaths of both American servicemen and Iraqi civilians during that event depends on how we interpret the Iraq War. It's unsurprising yet frustrating, then, that the miniseries mostly brushes aside the questions of the American military's occupation of Iraq to more effectively cast the troops in a heroic and celebratory light.

That depoliticization lands The Long Road Home somewhere between an earnest brochure and a proper drama. The mini is a lavish production, with chases, cityscapes, tanks and explosions vying for attention. But I kept finding myself more often wondering what the characters made of their mission — which was sold to them as humanitarian peacekeeping — than absorbed in the umpteenth firefight between soldiers and insurgents.

On a routine surveillance run around the city (with an automated cannon towering out of the humvee roof), Lt. Shane Aguero (E.J. Bonilla) and the two squads he's leading are ambushed by heavily armed rebels. His team holes up in an Iraqi home and is forced to take its family of four hostage. Initially saddled with a baldly manipulative prelude about leaving behind his extremely photogenic children, Bonilla proves a fantastic anchor of a sprawling tale with his level-headed, slightly dorky presence. Shane is both relatable and inspirational, a D&D fan who has to keep his smartest but most aggressive soldier (Jon Beavers) in line to ensure that there aren't any unnecessary deaths on an already grisly and panic-stricken night.

The second squad is headed by Sgt. Robert Miltenberger (Jeremy Sisto), a Kosovo vet haunted by war's savagery who doesn't let his fatalism keep him from protecting his brothers in uniform. His grim austerity is contrasted by the bored flippancy with which the younger soldiers meet their tasks. One grouses about the Iraqis' ingratitude toward the American peacekeepers. Another scoffs that it's no wonder the insurgents fear death so little; what would you have to live for if you lived in Sadr City? A third resents being made into a killer. The soldiers ask each other — rhetorically, then not so rhetorically — whether they could shoot a child. A pair of young dads (Jorge Diaz and Ian Quinlan) horse around, barely grown up themselves. The nervous, soul-sustaining chatter — funny, bro-y and sometimes deeply uncomfortable — makes for some of the miniseries' best written scenes.

Far less compelling is the activity back at the base. Michael Kelly and Jason Ritter give the production its obligatory boldface names, but their roles are relatively small and, in the overall scheme of things, pretty insignificant. As the title implies, Long Road Home takes some time to pull the squads back in from danger. The multi-step rescue operation is somewhat hard to follow, robbing the series of tension it could certainly use more of. The rising number of wounds among the soldiers and the steady depletion of ammo gin up some urgency, but too many scenes force us to wait alongside the men for intervention without learning enough about who they are. 

Each of Long Road Home's eight episodes focuses on a different character, with extensive, Orange Is the New Black-like flashbacks fleshing out backstories. Two hours stand out for their intensely moving narratives: the fifth, "The Choice," which focuses on the Iraqi interpreter Jassim (Darius Homayoun), and the sixth, "A City Called Heaven," which follows Army enlistee Tomas Young (Noel Fisher) before and after Black Sunday, through his tragic journey from newlywed soldier to unhappily married paralyzed veteran. (Young later became a well known anti-war activist and the subject of the 2007 documentary Body of War.)

Through Jassim's eyes, we see the transition of Iraq from brutal dictatorship to cruelty-filled chaos, as well as the constant trauma of ordinary Iraqis caught between pie-in-the-sky ideologies. The choice that his episode's title refers to — choosing a side as hostilities escalate between the American "invaders" and the kamikaze-ready fanatics of his hometown — is the miniseries' most wrenching moment by far and speaks to the emotional and political complexity and skill that the writers had at their disposal but only sometimes utilize.

Rarely would I argue for less screen time for female characters, but part of Long Road Home's significant bloat stems from the lengthy and repetitive scenes we're shown of the quietly suffering wives of Fort Hood, played by Kate Bosworth, Sarah Wayne Callies and Karina Ortiz. The men are audacious; the women worry and pray. That archetypal blandness highlights the specificity of Tomas' story all the more, especially in its candor about the romantic and sexual challenges of marriage after serious injury. Tomas' wife (Sarah Ramos) might be right in pointing out (to this fictional version, at least) that the veteran hasn't figured out how to enjoy life in a wheelchair. But Tomas speaks for a lot of veterans who feel that the military doesn't do enough to help wounded veterans.

After such a long wait, the rescue of the surviving soldiers is strangely anticlimactic. The refusal of pyrotechnics seems deliberate; the mini would prefer to focus on the troops' homecoming (or not) to a flashy display of action-hero firepower. But for the most part, The Long Road Home would rather stick to stock scenes and manipulative sympathy-seeking that add up to "support the troops" messaging than tell messily human stories. Thus it is the latest pop-culture military production to fail to understand that you can powerfully do both.

Cast: Michael Kelly, Jason Ritter, Kate Bosworth, Sarah Wayne Callies, Jeremy Sisto, Noel Fisher, Jon Beavers, E. J. Bonilla, Darius Homayoun
Created by: Mikko Alanne
Premieres: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT, in a special two-hour debut; then moves to 10 p.m. on Nov. 14 (NatGeo)