As an heir to the wartime realism of Combat! and Band Of Brothers, the HBO miniseries Generation Kill shares a fascination with how the big gears of military campaigning affect the small gears on the front. Based on Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright's book of the same name—about a U.S. Marine reconnaissance battalion in the early days of the 2003 Iraq invasion—Generation Kill is partly a critique of how the Iraq war has been mishandled, and partly a matter-of-fact depiction of soldiering in the 21st century, a few generations removed from the succession of wars that defined so much of American history. As depicted in Generation Kill, the Marines of First Recon arrive in Iraq simultaneously overtrained and underprepared, supplied with cutting-edge technology and no batteries, and led by commanders they openly distrust—often with good reason. So they do what grunts have done for as long as there've been wars: They bond over a common language of pop culture, pornography, and cold-blooded macho posturing.
What sets Generation Kill apart from other similar hard-boiled war movies—Battleground, say, or Sam Fuller's Korea films—is how intimately it lets us know its men. Because the Generation Kill characters are based on real people, there's very little trumped-up drama here. There's no getting to know Marines just so we can watch them get killed in moments of shock and irony, scripted to reveal the purposelessness of war. Instead, we watch them grind through quick, sloppy missions that no one fully understands. Then we see them cool their heels, offering opinions about everything from the invasion's long-term prospects to the best time and place to defecate. Some of the dialogue sounds too much like characters reciting a reporter's notes, but much of it is funny and flavorful, capturing the spirit of a volunteer army populated by modern-day iconoclasts who joined the Corps partly as a rebuke to the people they grew up with.
Generation Kill is also remarkable for the way it records the thousand mundane details that foster an environment of rash action and lingering regret. The Wire brain trust of David Simon and Ed Burns worked with Wright on bringing his book to the screen, and with the help of a trio of sharp directors, they take the audience deeper inside what has become arguably the most documented war of all time, showing an Iraq littered with body parts and troops who are likeable at times, annoying at others, and always absorbed into the institution. Hyped up on Ripped Fuel and working on shortsighted orders, these Marines tear through the country too quickly, bypassing legit targets and objectives while using military jargon and simplified terms like "bad guys" in order to distance themselves from their actions. By the time Generation Kill's final chapter ends, Wright and company have created not just a nuanced, necessary explication of recent events, but an epic that can stand alongside the greatest long-form movies ever made.
Key features: Detailed commentaries on every episode and an absorbing roundtable interview with Wright and some of the men of First Recon.