Sunday, July 27, 2008

Generation Kill, "Screwby": Camel killer

Spoilers for episode 3 of "Generation Kill" coming up just as soon as I track down a photo I loaned out...

I'm running out of things to discuss in these weekly reviews, not because I'm losing interest in "Generation Kill," but because each episode is very much of a piece with the whole miniseries, and there are only so many ways I can analyze the dysfunctional relationship between command and the troops.

That said, there are two events in "Screwby" worth discussing.

The first is the decision to abandon the town where the locals claimed to be ready, willing and able to lead Fick and the others to hidden weapons and members of the Republican Guard. For all we know -- and Fick freely acknowledges this -- the informant could have been a liar just looking to get revenge on some local rivals. (He does, after all, promise to lead Fick to a chemical weapons cache.) But by rolling out quickly and leaving the guy with nothing but chem lights, they'll never know, will they? One of the fundamental complaints critics of the war have had with our invasion strategy was that we were in such a tearing hurry to knock over Saddam's army and get to Baghdad that we didn't properly ferret out all the bad actors who would wind up in the insurgency. In the book, Godfather talks to Evan Wright for a while about how he didn't understand why they weren't taking their time in each town to separate enemies from allies and do a better job at winning hearts and minds. The quick-strike invasion itself was a huge success, but it was like digging a tunnel without pausing to erect supports along the way: you'll get to the other side, but everything's going to collapse behind you.

(Though Godfather was obviously wise about what we should have been doing along the way, he makes one of the most bone-headed decisions of the story when he orders the abandonment of the company's supply truck just because he was in such a hurry to go capture the airfield and impress General Mattis.)

The other notable event is Trombley shooting the kid and the aftermath. Trombley is, in some ways, the most important character in the book. More than anybody else, he symbolizes Wright's definition of what Generation Kill is all about: a young man weened on video games, excited to go out and get some regardless of the target or the value of the mission. In the book, he often comes across like a sociopath, and you can tell that's the reason, and not his relative lack of training, that makes the other Marines dislike him so much. Even in an alpha male group like this, Trombley was too gung ho, you know?

The way Billy Lush plays Trombley doesn't really invalidate that interpretation, but he deepens the character as written on the page. Lush's Trombley still isn't someone I would likely want to spend time with, but there's this odd sweetness to the performance that I wasn't expecting, that humanizes Trombley without betraying Wright's portrait of him. That moment where he asks Colbert if he -- Colbert, not himself -- is going to be okay because of the shooting incident showed tremendous self-awareness at the same time it showed that Trombley wasn't remotely as troubled by what happened as Colbert was.

Feel free to talk about any or all of the other incidents in "Screwby" -- Fick risking his career to prevent the idiotic Encino Man from dropping a bomb on his own troops, or the village getting destroyed entirely because two different units didn't have the same comms, or Captain America's latest idiocy -- but even though I continue to enjoy "Generation Kill," I find myself at a loss for things to write about it each week.

What did everybody else think?


Michael Cowgill said...

Simon and Burns keep playing to their strengths -- sympathy with the men on the ground, a great ear for dialogue, and that rare ability to make stupidity hilarious, enraging, and heartbreaking -- sometimes at the same time.

Still, it was nice to see Godfather not totally a jackass. When the men made a moral stand about the wounded kid, he spelled out real issues against them and then evacuated the kid anyway. And even Encino Man was in on that little bit of "rebellion."

Fick and Colbert continue to be the kind of guys you'd want as leaders -- Colbert immediately taking the blame for Trombley's mistake (even though the order was from up top, so it's really their blame).

Mark said...

I don't know if the problems the men face are strategic or tactical so much as epistemological. The quick strike strategy was and is designed to minimize casualities and get the fighting over and done with as soon as possible, and avoid the perception of being "bogged down" by a critical media and a fickle public.

Anonymous said...

Alan -

Do you happen to know how this show is doing in terms of # of viewers? Does HBO track that way?

It is so well-made and so topical in this election year, I hope it's doing better than that spate of Iraq war movies that made about $17.50 total at the box office.

Anonymous said...

Also, Alan, your site, your rules.

Are we allowed to talk about what any of the soldiers depicted are doing nowadays?

Or is there a spoiler policy effect (regarding who, if anyone, dies, etc.)?

I was going to write something about 1 of the guys but wanted to check 1st.

Anthony Wilson said...

So, is Trombley an a-hole for shooting those kids, or was he only following orders? I mean, we know he's an a-hole, but was he an a-hole in that instance?

Also, Alan - how much of the humor in the show comes from the book, and how much comes from Simon and Burns employing their trick of injecting humor in their dramas to make the inherent horror more bearable?

Anonymous said...

Now and forever, when I rewatch The Wire, Rawls will be known as Godfather.

Unknown said...

The humor is straight out of the book if not even toned down a bit. I loved how they kept Encino Man jumping out of his Humvee with his com still attached as that is one of the more indelible images I have from the book. They are doing an amazing job of putting the book on the screen with very little interpretation.

SJ said...

"They are doing an amazing job of putting the book on the screen with very little interpretation."

I can't agree more. This episode especially felt like it was lifted directly from the book. I am loving it.

Sixta reprimanding the gunner for losing his helmet was exactly the way I imagined it when I read the book. Just plain hilarious.

One thing I do miss though is Wright's perspective on everything when he wrote the book. I guess he just went into more detail and gave us a better look. For example, the "you shit on my shitter" scene came out as hilarious in this episode, but in the book it comes off as more serious. Wright tells us how the marine who owns the shitter is one of the toughest and most unemotional guys out there but for some reason he gets oddly emotional over the fact that his only "luxury" was sullied. I thought that was a small but powerful part of the book which didn't translate well to the screen.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Are we allowed to talk about what any of the soldiers depicted are doing nowadays?

In this case, I think it's okay. Non-fiction and all that.

Anonymous said...

I hardly ever have a problem with spoilers but there should definitely be a warning. Even though it's nonfiction, without reading the book, I'd be pretty disappointed to find out that one of the characters dies, gets discharged, promoted or any number of things at the very end of Wright's book and will likely appear in episode 7.

larchlion said...

i think my favorite little moment of acting/directing/writing in an otherwise fairly gut-wrenching episode was when ray started singing Tainted Love. Eventually, sgt. Colbert joined in, and then as if he had been ordered to on previous sing-a-long occasions pfc trombley reluctantly, but seemingly thru coersion, adds the accompaniment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying, Alan.

--------POTENTIAL SPOILER---------

To agree with michael cowgill, Fick is awesome. He was a Dartmouth student who joined the Marines after hearing a stirring speech by a journalist about the Marine Corps. Now, he's a student to Harvard Business School. His own autobiography is excellent...One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer.

------------END SPOILER-----------

dronkmunk said...


You don't evacuate people, remember? Lol.

Michael Cowgill said...


But the military language included the phrase "evac" in their--

Damn. You got me.

Anonymous said...

So who or what is a "screwby"? I thought I figured it out when they called Trombley a "screwby" (a newby screw-up), but then it was used differently at different times.

As for spoilers, I haven't read the book (sadly, I wasn't even aware of the book), so I do appreciate people putting spoiler warnings so I can skip those posts.

Bryan Murray said...

Screwby is Evan "Q-Tip" Stafford's word. When Wright asks him the meaning, Stafford says it means either that's cool or that's messed up. That's paraphrased of course.

I can't help comparing the show to The Wire; particularly Simon and Burns's frustration with the system and the people in charge. The Godfather is not quite as bad as Rawls in the book. He is very aggressive with his men to the point of recklessness but he also provides commentary for all his decisions and proves to be a skilled tactician--not just an officer looking for medals and accolades. The show is getting better each week though.

Anonymous said...

I thought this was the best of the three eps BY A MILE, perhaps because I can finally tell all the characters apart.

The incompetence and/or damn-the-ethics ambition of the senior people and it's impact on the junior ones is certainly a Simon theme, and one reason I am obsessed with the Wire (yes, I'm a few years behind!) and now loving this show.

At this point in my life, for better or worse, I'm one of those senior people, and I'd like to think I'm neither as incompetent nor as unethically self-promoting as a Godfather or Burrell, but I probably am. So, for me, watching these shows is perhaps like going to church. I empathize with the grunts, and then go back to my life.