"GET SOME," reads the tagline for the upcoming big-screen comedy Tropic Thunder, in which a gaggle of preening actors get caught up in a real war while shooting a Vietnam epic. But "Get Some" is also the title of the first episode of Generation Kill, the new seven-part HBO drama about a Marine recon battalion in the first few weeks of the Iraq war.
Part of what makes the fierce and unsentimental HBO production so watchable is its knowingness about such things. Combat troops are, to some extent, putting on a show, using movie-ready catchphrases and cracking wise as they cause and endure immense suffering. They do this because they’ve seen a lot of movies, and they do this because they have to: Fooling yourself into thinking it’s fun to be in severe physical peril in exchange for sub-bus-driver wages is the ultimate method acting challenge. It’s funny when a Marine, mocked by others for being a "camel killer," insists that along with the innocent camels he shot from the window of his Hummer, he’s pretty sure he shot some people too. But a couple of scenes later, that same Marine learns that he did indeed shoot people–unarmed civilians, including a kid. Shaken, he has to bury this information somewhere, because he can’t afford to be slow on the trigger next time and because civilian deaths are built-in, inescapable. The jokes with which Marines badger each other throughout are an essential part of this forgetting.
The miniseries, which begins Sunday night with weekly episodes to follow, is from David Simon and Ed Burns, the chief creative forces behind "The Wire," with which this serial shares a zesty willingness to dive into complexity. (Ed Burns, the ex-Baltimore cop, is not to be confused with Edward Burns, the squeaky-voiced actor, writer and director who keeps making little-seen alleged comedies about Irish-Americans on Long Island). There are more than 30 characters, and in their uniforms they’re often hard to tell apart. For civilian viewers, they’re even harder to understand.
Though the show is based on Rolling Stone embed Evan Wright’s book of the same title, and the Wright character is portrayed on the show as a frightened and sometimes comically inept little brother to the Corps, there is very little reliance on him as an audience surrogate. Rarely do we have to listen to clunky "What is an M.S.R., please?" dialogue. (Answer, by the way: road.) Simon and Burns relish throwing us in the back of the hummvee and speeding off toward Baghdad while we puzzle over the A-O’s and the Victors and the SAWs and the N.J.P.’s and the R.T.O’s and the R.C.T.’s. Many a viewer will give up.
That would be a shame, but it’s the price of putting on an authentic war show. I’ve seen virtually all of the big-screen Iraq war documentaries, many of which relied on footage gathered by embeds, and "Generation Kill" feels closer to getting it right–the whole brutal, funny, appalling, thrilling spectacle of war–than any of them. Simon and Burns don’t demand that we take a side on whether the war is just. They simply lay on the details, many of which are priceless. Marine talk–the dialogue is too good to be imaginary, and HBO says it is closely based on Wright’s transcripts–is a "Full Metal Jacket" blitz of profanity, laced with racial invective and gay jibes. Some of the insults go swirling on and on, like jazz variations on a theme of offensiveness.
"Generation Kill" is the first TV or film offering on Iraq that I’ve wanted to see more than once. It is exacting about the horror–you could make a case that it is overly enthusiastic about showing civilian destruction–but it also has a fired-upness that is far closer to the mark than the usual mood of hand-wringing, blame-America-first woe. And it is hilarious. In episode one, when the Marines are reading letters from children, Cpl. Ray Person–caustically portrayed by James Ransone, who also played the spectacularly messed-up dockworker Ziggy in season two of "The Wire"–replies aloud to a letter from a kid who wrote in with a prayer for no one to get hurt: "I am actually a U.S. Marine who was born to kill, whereas clearly you have mistaken me for some kind of wine-sipping Communist d—suck. And although peace probably appeals to tree-loving bisexuals like you and your parents, I happen to be a death-dealing blood-crazed warrior who wakes up every day just hoping for the chance to dismember my enemies and defile their civilizations. Peace sucks a hairy a–hole, Freddy. War is the mother—-ing answer." Across America, steely-eyed young bravos are going to be watching this show and thinking: There’s one place left where I can talk like that? Sign me up.