Sunday, August 24, 2008

Generation Kill, "Bomb in the Garden": Iceman vs. Captain America

Spoilers for the "Generation Kill" finale coming up just as soon as I score some valium...

When I interviewed the "Generation Kill" producers shortly before it premiered, David Simon said something interesting that didn't make it into the final story. While talking about the thematic similarities between "Generation Kill" and "The Wire" -- specifically, how both shows give their loyalties to the footsoldiers on the ground, and eye their bosses with extreme suspicion -- he said, "To be fair, it would have been a different book if (Wright) had hung with Ferrando."

"Bomb in the Garden" provides some hints of what that book might have been like. We get the throwaway moment between Sgt. Major Sixta and Gunny Wynn when Sixta offers to bring up the grooming standard as a way to combat drooping morale. (The men, of course, hated Sixta for ragging on them about their moo-stashes, but it was usually in that Charlie Finley Oakland A's way, where their mutual hatred of an authority figure brought them all together.) More importantly, we get the reporter (who is never, as far as I can tell, referred to by name at any point in the miniseries) doing his exit interview with Godfather. Ferrando suspects that Captain America is probably unfit for combat, but he has the same perspective on Cap's actions that he does on Lt. Fick's -- which is to say that he has to rely on the reports of men below him, and sometimes below those officers -- and if he deals harshly with one, isn't he obligated to deal harshly with the other? Yes, we know Fick is a great leader and Cap is a nutcase, but we're seeing them from a different point of view, and one that's then filtered through Evan Wright and again through Simon, Ed Burns and company.

By the same token, the wanderings of First Recon during their days in Baghdad seem aimless and counter-productive to Fick and Colbert, but there could have been very rational motives behind each of them from the way command saw things. The explanation behind the lack of night patrols wasn't a terrible one; in that environment, who's to say the presence of the U.S. forces at night might not have made things worse, along with getting our guys killed?

But allowing for the possibility of an alternate perspective only goes so far. There's no way to justify punishing Kocher and Redman for the bayonet incident and promptly reinstate the actual bayonet-wielder, Captain America, for instance. And we are, after all, five years removed from the events depicted here, and our military is still over there trying to clean up the mess we made by breaking the country without having a sound plan to immediately begin fixing it.

In that way, "Bomb in the Garden" is more important than all six previous "Generation Kill" chapters put together. The miniseries has been enormously entertaining (even if, as I've said, the "Groundhog Day" nature of the Marines' lives made it tough to blog at times), but in deconstructing how Operation: Iraqi Freedom went wrong, they were all just a lead up to the events depicted here. As an invasion, this was an enormous success; we took down an entire country in three weeks time. As an attempt to promote democracy and discourage terrorism, it's been a dismal failure, for reasons illustrated by First Recons various misadventures in this hour. You can't just leave the unexploded bomb in the garden, because sooner or later somebody's going to blow the thing up, right?

Some specific moments I liked in the finale:

• The Marines' arrival in the cigarette factory, with the silver paper raining down on them like a ticker-tape parade, was a perfect homage to/parody of President Bush's "Mission Accomplished." The war is allegedly over, but the battles are going to keep going for years and years.

• Much as I love the Rick Rubin-produced Johnny Cash "America" albums, they're dangerously close to becoming a cliche for TV show montages. "Sarah Connor Chronicles," of all shows, already used "The Man Comes Around" at the end of its last season, but I'll give "Generation Kill" a pass because the song is such a perfect fit, between the mix of jaunty tune and somber lyrics (a nice match for the show's black comedy and how the Marines often found their greatest joy when matters were at their worst) and the radio squelch at the beginning and end, which matched the miniseres' opening credits and constant stream of radio chatter.

• The home movie, by the way, was a mixture of footage shot by the production and stuff shot by the actual First Recon Marines during the invasion, much of it scrounged up by the real Eric Kocher.

• Kocher, Wright and others have talked about how quiet Ray Person is in the real world when he's had a lot of sleep and isn't guzzling Ripped Fuel. I liked the acknowledgement of that in the moment where Colbert complains that he isn't talking any more.

• Though the themes are very different, the structure of this episode reminded me in many ways of the finale to HBO's other great war miniseries, "Band of Brothers," which also featured odd vignettes about what the company did after the end of the war but before they got sent home. Both episodes even climax with a sporting event, albeit with divergent tones. In "Band," it's a baseball game that provides the Easy Company soldiers an opportunity to exhale and enjoy the beautiful countryside; here, it's a football game that gives the men (particularly Person and Capt. Patterson) an excuse to physically but unofficially vent their frustration with the likes of Encino Man and Fruity Rudy. (Rudy actually hadn't done much in the past to earn Ray's ire, but Ray's rant about high school jocks suggested his explosion had little to do with Rudy himself.)

• Getting back to the nature of perspective, the new edition of Wright's book (the one with the miniseries' cast on the cover) has an afterword filling in what happened to many of these Marines after the invasion. Of particular interest is the revelation that Casey Kasem turned out to be a hero during combat in a later deployment.

• The original Alan Arkin/Peter Falk version of "The In-Laws" was one of my family's favorite movies when I was growing up, and so when the reporter started zig-zagging while running away from the sniper, I immediately started shouting, "Serpentine, Shel! Serpentine!" But for the reporter to then actually quote the scene? Pure pop culture Nirvana. (I had forgotten that bit from the book, thankfully.) Can someone get that clip up on YouTube already? (The only scene I can find is this one.) I'm not sure how funny it is if you haven't watched Falk torment Arkin for the previous hour, but in context it is one of the most hilarious things ever committed to celluloid.

• Throughout, the singalongs have been a real pleasure, but I especially loved Colbert finally relaxing the ban on country music while Ray was asleep -- and that Ray was just awake enough to realize this.

• Another running gag paid off well: Trombley's "You see, Sergeant? We do shoot dogs in Iraq," followed by him defiantly eating some Charms.

What did everybody else think?

32 comments:

Brian said...

The series overall was fantastic. Very accurate to the book in both recitation and atmosphere.

Watching Patterson clock Encino Man was one of the more satisfying things ever committed to celluloid.

Another interesting tidbit in the new afterward is how Captain America was promoted to a prestigious posting. Failure upwards seems to be a constant in many organizations.

SJ said...

Wonderful end to the miniseries. But I'm wondering how Wright found out about the fight between Patterson and Encino Man and the one between Person and Reyes, because none of them are mentioned in the book. But what is mentioned in the book is that during a football game a Marine fatally shot another Marine after getting angry or something.

The real-life Sgt. Eric Kocher also showed up in this one, though I haven't noticed him in the other episodes.

HollyMartins said...

I think this was an extremely well-done series, but god, was it depressing. Knowing that it was (more or less) based on actual events, and that the consequences are ongoing even now, made it just gut-wrenching to watch, despite all the great acting and humor. Beneath the banter, and heroes like Colbert and Fick, is a thoroughly bleak, despairing, and disillusioned view of the war, the chain of command, and life's complete lack of fairness, justice or reason... I mean, I don't disagree, really, but damn.

And trying to get my friends to watch Generation Kill has been twice as hard as convincing them to watch the Wire was. It's too bad, because a lot of it was great, but on the other hand, I get it; most people don't want their souls crushed every Sunday night. Fair enough.


Alan, do you think "True Blood" is going to be better than it looks, or can I cancel my HBO now?

Alan Sepinwall said...

The real-life Sgt. Eric Kocher also showed up in this one, though I haven't noticed him in the other episodes.

He's shown up from time to time, always working with Capt. Patterson.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Alan, do you think "True Blood" is going to be better than it looks, or can I cancel my HBO now?

I'm not a fan.

Alan Sepinwall said...

But I'm wondering how Wright found out about the fight between Patterson and Encino Man and the one between Person and Reyes, because none of them are mentioned in the book.

Wright stayed in touch with most of the Marines from the book, and Kocher worked as technical advisor on the miniseries.

Ben said...

Great series! I was also happy to see the David Simon tradition of adding a bit of humanity to to the 'bad guys' - God Father and Major Sixta, softening the edges a little and giving them a bit of depth. Also I felt that in proud Wire tradition, the penultimate and final episodes were the best giving an emotional pay off for all that we had seen before - with a montage and music!.
All the writers - and the directors have done a great job in humanising the soldiers without pulling any punches when it comes to the realities of armed conflict and terrible actions that are committed.
Generation Kill was filling a Wire shaped hole in my life quite nicely, now what do I watch??

Andrew said...

And for the record, the fight between Patterson and Encino Man was changed up slightly. The way it's mentioned in the book, it came during a race, not a football game, when EM checked some enlisted man. Patterson responded by putting him in a headlock.

carolyn said...

I thought the entire series was fantastic.

But just wanted to say YES! the serpentine run was soooo hilarious. i haven't laughed that hard at the TV in a long time.

Josh said...

Something to go along with the comment about how the series would have been different if Wright had hung with Ferrando...I also would think that the story would have been quite different if he was riding with Encino Man & Casey Kasem...The portrayal of Encino Man, Kasem, and Captain America were all so cartoonish in thier incompetance (Cap & Encino) and asshole-ness (Encino & Kasem), it's hard to digest without looking for another perspective.

I did a little digging and found a rebuttal to the book from the real Casey Kasem (Daniel J. Griego), which he posted on his brother's blog (http://coinside.blogspot.com/2006/05/generation-kill-full-rebuttal.html). In his response, he describes several incidents covered in the book from his perspective...obviously the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of Wright's opinion and Gregio's...but one thing I found interesting was how he basically called Person a sorry excuse for a Marine (Which is probably just as likely to be true as the cartoonish portrayls of the officers). As Gregio says, if the story is basically told from the perspective of the guys who befriended Wright, and one of those is potentially a 'shitbird', the opinion of superiors might be a bit skewed, especially if aren't privy to the overall strategy and orders from your immediate superiors' superiors.

Michael Cowgill said...

A satisfying end to a miniseries that's as far from traditional dramatic satisfaction as you can get. The Sixta moment was nice as was Godfather's enigmatic talk with the reporter. Encino Man shirtless -- kind of terrifying. The rest, as we expect from these guys, heartbreaking, frustrating, infuriating, and hilarious.

I started reading the book, and a couple differences stood out. One bit of information I would have liked to have had in the miniseries, which we don't get a sense of until the final episode -- this is Godfather's first time in combat. I understand the desire to eschew exposition like that, but it changes my perspective on him. Second, which I'm glad they avoided, Wright explains command's strategy from the get-go, the things the marines don't know. In the book, it's good because it sets up the situation, but being right with the marines and not understanding what's going on made for better drama.

Michael Cowgill said...

Oh -- forgot this par -- in a lot of ways, the miniseries is a perfect example of how you can be against the war but support the military (or at least portions of it).

Timmy!! said...

On the whole, I really enjoyed the series, despite having a very hard time getting past the ridiculously one-sided and cartoonish portrayals of Capt. America, Encino Man, and Casey Kasem, which I think actually hurt the series' anti-war arguments (and which I am guessing got it lambasted and/or dismissed as liberal propoganda in the conservative media).

That being said, can that David Simon do a season/series-ending musical montage or what? Luckily, Alan, I've never seen Sarah Conner, and don't recall any other show using a Johnny Cash song in this way (unless you count those hotel commericals with "I've Been Everywhere"), so there was no overkill/cliche element for me. I just loved how the tone of the video gradually changed and the marines stopped watching one-by-one as the impact (or lack thereof) of what they had (and hadn't) done sunk in, until only Trombley (of course) was left. It blew me away.

Pale Writer said...

I read Casey Kasem's response, and I really tried to work out what I was feeling about it because, on the surface, you can buy into a lot of what he's saying. But then I realized, what he's saying is exactly the point of Generation Kill (I think).

You can take someone like Ray Person, who in the mind of Casey Kasem is a shitbird Marine, and you can make him the point of a spear that is going to be worn down and screwed over and it doesn't matter because he's just a shitty, moto-hating Marine. Trombley will never win command men, will never understand the concepts that are going on, but goddamn do you want him in the lead car because that boy just wants to kill.

Casey Kasem may be a decorated, America-loving patriot, but that seems to be what he wanted to be. Person, Fick, Colbert, Gunny Wynn...they wanted more, they expected more, and...and what? Is it the military's fault for not trusting the ideas of these men? Is it the men's fault for thinking that they could exist in the military? I have no idea. I just..I don't think that Casey Kasem's view and Wright's view have to be separated. The stories are the same, it's just the moral of the story that changes.

Andrew said...

Frankly, I think Casey Kasem is just making himself come off worse in all his protestations. He protests his portrayal by calling Nate Fick and Gunny Wynn cowards? He's also posting videos all over YouTube and bad mouthing Fick. The series portrayal of him was that of a dick who had a serious hard-on for Fick. Right now, he's doing nothing dissuade such a notion.

Josh said...

But what do you know about Fick besides what the series/book can tell you? Fick is as likable character as there is on that show, but that isn't the real Nate Fick...

I'm not saying I necessarily agree with Kasem...but he's not the only guy out there saying that the author either misremembered some things or didn't exactly understand what was going on.

Andrew said...

I base my opinion of Fick off of Wright's book, Fick's book, and the opinions of various other Marines I've read online who have no loyalty to either party.

It's entirely possible that the book had Kasem pegged wrong. The new afterword in even acknowledges his status in the company improved greatly during their second tour. However, I'm suspicious of anyone who when disagreeing with his own portrayal in a book feels a need to publicly bash fellow Marines who didn't have a thing to do with writing the book. Doing so is unprofessional to say the least. He thinks his characterization is unfair yet has no qualms about calling other people shitbirds and cowards?

Michael Cowgill said...

I skimmed Casey Kasem's reactions but didn't want to get too involved in them since I haven't finished book and they address it rather than the show. I certainly understand his desire to defend himself. What strikes me as interesting is that those of us who've only watched the minseries, are responding a dramatized version of the guy, and so our frustration, anger, etc. is with that guy onscreen more than the real guy. And of course, Simon, Burns, and Wright made the decision to, for the most part, only give us one point of view, that of the non-command Marines, so we're seeing him and Encino Man and Captain America through their eyes. Of course, they do break that POV for some of the command meetings, and the ones without Fick, it could be argued, are really breaking that -- though Patterson is there, and he sort of counts with the other Marines in my eyes. Still, if there were an opportunity to show another side of these guys, it seems like that would be it.

Diana said...

Alan, the scene of the reporter dodging bullets is now on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdaQHTWT_ZI

Alan Sepinwall said...

Thanks, Diana, but I'm still looking for the original "Serpentine, Shel!" scene from The In-Laws.

Tim Masterson said...

The best part of the serpentine run is the look on Colbert's face from behind the scope.

dez said...

I read Casey Kasem's rebuttal, which led me to this: http://commentaryongenerationkill.blogspot.com/

Evan Wright has an extended comment on that blog post.

Anonymous said...

I did not think the scene with Sixta was a throwaway at all. If anything I learned to respect him a bit. Him harping on the grooming standard was a way for the men to band together with a common hate. Every platoon needs someone to be a cick and he knew he had to fill that role.

Jeff said...

I'm a big fan of the Band of Brothers, so I looked forward to Generation Kill when it was broadcast. It's a very different series, and I've found GK difficult to watch at times... mostly because the content is so dense; I end up watching each episode 2-3 times just to understand everything that is going on. I liked a lot of the things that have already been mentioned (the Serpentine run, the quiet Ray Person sans Ripped Fuel, etc.).

Anonymous said...

Andrew I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of Kasem. I couldn't help but laugh when (after complaining that he was characterized inaccurately), he began posting youtube video's in an effort to discredit Fick.

On a serious note, the blog where he calls Person a sh*tbird, and Fick & Wynn cowards was highly unprofessional.

Anonymous said...

Alan,
After the sepertine shell, seprtine comment, Colbert says something like " a full and happy life betrying us and others with your venal lies". Any idea where that came from?

llsie said...

Nathaniel Fick just spoke at Invesco Field! Did anyone else see that????????????????????????????????????????????

Jan √ėyvind said...

Hey, I've never seen "In-Laws". But the same thing is discussed in the 1975 tv-movie called "The Deadly Tower" with John Forsythe and Kurt Russell.

In that movie Richard Yniguez who plays a police officer runs in a serpentine fashion to evade Charles Whitman's sniper shots from the clock tower.

I don't know what law enforcement teaches about how to go about this. In the army we did a straight line just like our guys here.

COINside said...

Gunny Griego formally charged Fick & Wynn with cowardice. It was command's call after that. With 14 years in Recon to that point, he was certainly qualified to ID Person as the fowl credited. No marine has publicly discredited him (Griego) only the guys that read the book or watched the series.

Anonymous said...

COINside - That's funny because when confronted with calling them cowards Griego changed his story and stated that he told Fick he did a good job. So which is it? Also I don't remember ever hearing about a SNCO charging a Commissioned Officer with anything from my days in the Corps.

Jim Teacher said...

Just wanted to say amazing miniseries, although I didn't get into it the first go-round. Thank goodness for On Demand.

Anonymous said...

Just finished watching the series on HBO go app. Wow. Incredible. Found a blog with a jargon glossary that was helpful. The most meaningful scene in the whole series for me was in part 6 or 7 where Doc was treating the little boy. The fear in that child's face, which had to have been real, when the mob of men approached, made me weep.