Monday, July 14, 2008

Generation Kill, "Get Some": Po-lice that moo-stash!!!!

Spoilers for the premiere episode of "Generation Kill" coming up just as soon as I get a sit-rep as to J-Lo's status...

"You know what happens when you get out of the Marine Corps? You get your brains back."

I had originally planned to devote a good chunk of this post to explaining who the hell everybody is, how the recon Marine command hierarchy is structured, what the terminology means, etc. But I had an epiphany the other day when I sat down to rewatch "Get Some" and I realized that I wasn't remotely as lost as I was the first time. (If you need the Who's Who assistance, Mo Ryan has all the relevant PDF files hosted on her site.)

Sure, it helped that I had seen the next three episodes after that, and that I had frequently turned to my copy of Evan Wright's wonderful book when I was feeling especially dumbsquizzled. But, like Simon and Burns' "The Wire," I think "Generation Kill" is a show that throws you into the deep end of the pool, and after some thrashing around, you discover that you can swim. With or without the study aids, by the time you get to the end of episode 2 or 3, I suspect you'll get it. Admittedly, Simon makes things tougher than he needs to be in spots. The actors cast to play Encino Man (Lt. Fick's incompetent immediate superior) and Capt. Patterson (the leader of a different company in First Recon) may as well be brothers (especially when seated), and I don't think the miniseries uses Lee Tergesen's reporter character as much as it could to simplify things. (If nothing else, a scene where Tergesen is introduced to all the officers and told who reports to whom wouldn't have been the worst idea in the world.) But so long as you know the five people in the picture above -- from left to right, lead Humvee driver Josh Ray Person (James Ransone), the reporter, second platoon leader Lt. Fick (Stark Sands), lead Humvee team leader Brad Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard) and first Humvee gunner Trombley (Billy Lush) -- you're good to go. Other characters will be important and/or interesting as time goes on -- Fruity Rudy, Captain America, Godfather, Sgt. Major Sixta -- but the guys in that first Humvee are (with the exception of the turret gunner, who's a minor character at best) well-established even by the end of episode one.

But if the world that Simon, Burns, Wright and company drop us into can be confusing at first (mirroring, as they intended, the confusion that Wright felt at the time), it's a fully-realized one that's both thousands of miles away (literally and figuratively) from the Baltimore of "The Wire" and one that will feel very familiar to anyone who spent a lot of time watching McNulty and Bunk drink at the train tracks. The two biggest similarities similarities -- both of them very present in Wright's book, and in no way transplanted in by Simon and Burns' worldview -- are:

1)A mission that, on paper, is noble -- Who doesn't think drugs are harmful? Who doesn't think Saddam was a bad guy? -- but that maybe wasn't the best use of resources and was certainly not well planned-out in terms of an end game; and

2)A command hierarchy where the people who understand the problems the best (the cops on the street, the Marines on the ground) have the least authority, while the people making the decisions are far removed from the action, and whose orders therefore bear little resemblance to the realities their men are faced with when carrying them out.

While "The Wire" was inspired by true events in the lives of Simon, Burns and people that they knew, there was plenty of room to fictionalize as needed. Simon calls "Generation Kill" a fictionalized version, to some extent, of Wright's travels with First Recon, but he also has this text he has to follow, and so the themes and characters aren't all one to one. Colbert isn't McNulty, Person isn't Bunk, Godfather isn't Burrell, Sgt. Major Sixta isn't Rawls, etc. Still, as I read about and then watched the series of snafus that accompanied First Recon's entry into Iraq -- Encino Man getting the company lost because he duct-taped his windows shut, the piss-poor communication of orders from command to the troops, Colbert being ordered to let what would turn out to be death squads go without even asking some routine questions, and the climactic, "Three Kings"-ish moment where Fick has to "unsurrender" the Iraqi citizens and send them walking back in the direction of the death squads -- I couldn't help but imagine Dominic West asking, "The &*%^ is wrong with this military?"

As Simon has done throughout his career with the cops and criminals of Baltimore, Wright's book did an impressive job of reporting on the behavior and language of the men he covered without presuming to judge it. Much of what Person -- the miniseries' breakout character, and maybe the part that gets people to remember Ransone for something other than Ziggy's enormous member -- says, at great length and speed, is vile, offensive, reprehensible... you pick the adjective. But even as he's cussing out the image of some cute and oblivious elementary school girl, or suggesting that the war wouldn't have happened if Saddam had sent the Republican Guard to Vegas, you can tell that he's letting off steam -- and overcaffeinated, and overtired -- and his disgusting rants (and off-key renditions of "Sk8er Boi" and "Loving You") become almost -- no, forget "almost" -- charming.

I could talk in more generalities about "Get Some," but because this is a self-contained miniseries, we're going to be covering a lot of the same thematic ground over the next six weeks, plus this is late, so let's move on to a few specifics:

-In some ways, "Generation Kill" is one long, strange, violent road trip comedy, and as funny as Ransone is as Person, he needs a great on-screen buddy to make it work, and Alexander Skarsgard (son of Stellan) provides that. You can tell that Colbert can never decide whether he's annoyed or amused by his driver -- probably because he usually is feeling both at the same time.

-As mentioned in today's feature story on the making of the miniseries, Fruity Rudy is played by the real Fruity Rudy (Reyes) himself, because Simon and the casting team couldn't find a Latino actor who was both beautiful enough and convincing enough with all the New Age-y aspects of Rudy. Here's a Simon quote that got massively trimmed from that story for space reasons: "John Huertas, who plays Espera, after he read the role, he told me we first had him read for Rudy Reyes, 'And I read his lines, and the (bleep) he was saying about good dharma, and I thought this was the worst-written piece of (bleep) I've ever read! What the (bleep) is this (bleep)? And then I went to Africa and I met the real Rudy, and I'm like, it's dead on!' Rudy's like a unicorn. They just don't make 'em like that."

-Sgt. Major Sixta (referred to in the book as The Coward of Khafi) is played by Neal Jones, who you may remember as Chief Reilly's gay son from "Rescue Me," and he never fails to crack me up every time he starts mangling the English language and giving the Marines grief about their mustaches. I asked Wright and Eric Kocher (played in the miniseries by Owain Yeoman, and the miniseries' technical advisor) whether Sixta actually sounded like that. They said he did, and it wasn't even because he was Southern (I think they said he was from Nebraska), but because for some reason all Marines of that rank somehow decide they need to use that accent.

That's it for now. Sorry I couldn't get it done in time to post it after the East Coast airing finished. I'll try to do better next week.

What did everybody else think?


Undercover Black Man said...

I don't know how I'll keep from yelling "Police that moo-stash!" at random strangers on the street.

(A smack in the mouth might inhibit me, though.)

Ep. 1 was mesmerizing. Very well directed.

Anonymous said...

Fine, fascinating television. I didn't mind not knowing who everyone was because I seriously doubt Evan Wright could keep track of everyone when he started. The show did a great on the ground, in the hummer view of what it must have been like.

Also loved the crackle of the radio discussion over the credits. Oddly haunting.

Unknown said...

fantastic. I only wish I could watch the next six hours tonight.

Alan, you mention Bunk and McNulty drinking at the tracks.

To my knowledge, Simon never completely admitted the symbolism of train tracks in the Wire.

Do you think it was an homage (or had some meaning) that the final scene of tonight's GK episode closed on a train track?

Steve B said...

I did not like the first episode. I loved the Wire, but I don't think the same technique that was used in a 5 season television show should be used in a 7 part mini-series.

We should at least be able to figure out who the main characters are after the first episode without having to consult PDF files. I'll still watch the rest of the series and I'm sure I'll love it by the end, but ultimately, I think this show is only going to appeal to the same people who watched the Wire. And that isn't a big audience.

If HBO had the budget to make a full television series based on the book, I'd be saying something different. But I really think the best way to go about telling a story should change when you go from television series to movie to mini-series. Burns and Simon didn't change their approach, and I don't think many people will watch as a result.

Anonymous said...

Maybe this is just because I read the book last week, but I really didn't have much trouble at all keeping track of the characters. With one episode down, I can readily identify Colbert, Person, Ferrando, Captain America, Trombley, Espara, Fick, Gunny Wynn. However, I am slightly surprised that I'm having trouble with telling Encino Man and Patterson apart, since Michael Kelly, who plays Patterson, is one of the few actors on the show I actually recognize (he was an FBI agent on the final season of The Sopranos). Thankfully, their voices are different enough that it only requires a line reading for me to figure which is which.

I did not like the first episode. I loved the Wire, but I don't think the same technique that was used in a 5 season television show should be used in a 7 part mini-series.

I don't get your logic here. Simon & Burns had no idea that they'd be on the air for five years when The Wire got started. At the time, it was just a matter of telling single 13-part story. I don't see why technique should be changed when doing a 7-part story instead of a 13-part one.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry.... to me, he's still Ziggy

SJ said...

I liked it a lot. The Hitler in the background joke especially cracked me up.

But I'm wondering whether I would be lost or not if I hadn't read the book recently (just finished it like a month ago). And yes, it's hard to make a distinction between Encino Man and the other guy...they look very similar.

Unknown said...

I loved the Wire, and I'm impressed by GK for the same reasons. It feels more like a documentary then fictional television. I did eight years as a Marine Combat Correspondent. I spent time with 1st Recon as well as Force Recon. This is real. There's a Marine right now sitting in the suck somewhere spouting the same grunt philosophy...They keep the Marines angry for a reason. They kill.

Unknown said...

I went to Iraq in '03 and this was one of the first books that came out about the Marines when I got home. The small amount of trianing I did in a Recon Unit stuck with me the whole time that I was in. I bought the book years ago and have since passed it around to at least 10 people who ask me what it was like overseas.

I randomly heard someone talking about the show coming on just six hours before it was to air and I soooo glad I did. I really like how it was filmed and showed the truths that I experenced and have high hopes for the rest of the series. I even like it enough to post my first blog ever!

I didnt notice how much of it was jarhead lingo untill my wife came in and started asking me questions about what they were saying every two minutes!! Like I said before, I really enjoyed the first episode and am eagerly waitign fo the next six AND for the box set to come out.

I hope my aunt doesnt mind me coming over every Sunday night to abuse her HBO and cranking up the volume so she came hear the f-bomb every few minutes . . .

Mrglass said...

I did not like the first episode. I loved the Wire, but I don't think the same technique that was used in a 5 season television show should be used in a 7 part mini-series.

I have to agree with this; on the other hand, it will be easier to re-watch the whole miniseries a second time after it ends.

Anyway, I really liked 'Get some'. The absence of music alone sets it apart from pretty much everything else shot about the war, and is really powerful.

Jarvis and Anita said...

Thanks for your feedback @River; knowing that someone who served over there feels this is authentic is almost certainly a good sign, just like Baltimore cops and drug dealers giving The Wire the thumbs up.

I haven't seen GK yet as I live in Australia and it won't screen over here until probably next year at the earliest, so I can't comment on the mini-series. However I am an avid Wire fan and, reading Evan Wright's book, I am struck by the organisational similarities between the Baltimore PD and the US Marines. It has helped me appreciate the universality of David Simon and Ed Burns' theme of institutional dysfunction.

Reading the book, I could see the parallels between Lt Fick and Lt Daniels (walking a fine line bewteen obeying orders and looking after their subordinates), Sgt Colbert and Freamon (independent and intelligent veterans) and Encino Man and Lt Marimow (incompetent cowboys who abuse the chain of command). No doubt Simon and Burns chose to take on this project because its themes resonated with them, but the parallels suggest a larger truth.

The major difference is that in Generation Kill the commanding officers seem to have a far greater disregard for human life, whether Iraqi civilian or US Marine, perhaps because there is far less scrutiny of what they do (for instance, the US administration and military have refused to keep a body count of Iraqi civilians).

I also appreciated Wright's book for the insight it gave us into the soldiers' diverse backgrounds and opinions. Although I opposed the Iraq war from the start and find the Marine culture reprehensible, it is fascinating to look at how human beings respond under extreme pressure and how so many of these soldiers did their best too carry out their jobs with dignity and professionalism.

J. Pitts said...

There is a second actor from The Wire, I am pretty sure the guy that played Officer Colicchio is one of the executive officers on the show.

Anonymous said...

Anyone catch Nancy Franklin's review in The New Yorker? It is really awful, and I say this not as a Wire fan but as a fan of good criticism. I have grown quite sick of her to be honest and do honestly believe The New Yorker would be far better served by somone of Mr. Sepinwall's intelligence than her repeated nonsense.

The gist of her article seems to be, I can't follow the characters and, this is an observation, I'm not accustomed to watching a show that doesn't yell its ideas at me. She says the show should emphasize ideas more. Are you really not sick of shows, or books, or movies, that scream their thesis at you. Isn't it so much nicer to watch a show that over time and in subtle ways makes it point? I really can't believe a magazine as fine as The New Yorker, and it is fine, has kept her on staff for so long. Anthony Lane may have bad taste in movies but at least the man can write. (And when writing on literature he is excellent)

AngieNCSC said...

g. winckler--I read the Nancy Franklin review today. I haven't read the book or the Rolling Stone article, as she has, but I've seen every episode of "The Wire" and most of the many seasons of "Homicide", so I feel like I know the TV/David Simon side of the equation (which is what she's supposed to be critiquing, yes?) I'm not sure how relevant it is to the whole experience for her to compare the three versions of the story told in three mediums. I'm watching the mini-series, and because I know and trust David Simon's work I assume that I'm going to be able to pick up the story lines and tell the characters apart and that my effort will be worth it. Did anyone hear his fantastic interview on XMPR recently? I think it was with Bob Edwards. He had such great things to say about the kind of art he makes, and why it's important to require something from your audience. Back to Nancy Franklin, I knew we were off to a bad start when she referred to "The Wire" as being in "Tony's timeslot". If she's going to take it personally that any other show isn't "The Sopranos", she's going to have to find a new line of work. I mean, I liked "The Sopranos" fine, but it's no "Wire".