The first combat episode of Generation Kill is analogous to lousy sex. Perhaps viewers need their expectations similarly deflated when it comes to war movies because we’ve come to expect a certain amount of firefighting and explosions like so many bells and whistles. And while I think the denial of those things is a mixture of straight-up “this is how it happened” reportage straight from Evan Wright’s non-fiction book and a dramatic conceit that subverts expectations, it does make me wonder if watching war movies, no matter what the circumstance, is an act of spectatorship. We either want to see cities get blown up with Wagnerian gusto or get that adrenaline rush of excitement as the bullets go whizzing by our heroes, or we want a deadening ennui knowing that war is hell and absurd. Regardless, there’s a kind of programmed response to war pictures no matter what the format, and Generation Kill is no exception. Does self-awareness of this make for better television? I’m still not sure.
However, that feeling of not getting jerked off real nice does manage to, ironically, keep you on the edge of your seat. “How long are these guys going to prolong the inevitable?” you think. “This show is called Generation Kill. Eventually, this generation of marines is going to have to kill.” It’s not unlike that distinct feeling I had when I saw the stage version of Edward Albee’s The Goat. The husband comes home, the wife is waiting for him, she thinks he is having an affair, and the title of the play is The Goat. Albee had us sit there in that heightened state of self-awareness for a good half-hour, maybe forty-five minutes, watching the husband and wife talk their way around what we already assumed from the title.
The Marines of the First Reconnaissance Battalion are so bored and disgruntled from not shooting at the enemy that they resort to making a special point of discussing when and where they have to take a dump, or snickering acknowledgement of homo-eroticism in the military. As their armored humvees pass by dead bodies on the desert roadside, there’s a sense of wonderment about when they’ll actually be able to shoot at the enemy. In this second episode, we spend so much time stuck in the vehicle with our four protagonists that, even though we learn very little about their personal lives, the fact that we’re spending an exhaustive amount of time with them creates a certain amount of identification. Maybe it can’t be helped. Audiences want to connect, and they’ll grab at straws if they have to.
By osmosis, we get a sense of these characters as being slightly more than young men with crew cuts. For example, Cpl. Josh Ray Person (James Ransone, who played Ziggy in the second season of The Wire), is a chatterbox rambling on and on about the ridiculousness of army protocol, his lack of sleep, and his experience on the high school debate team (and how they all thought he was high all the time because he would never shut his yap). He neatly breaks down why he and his colleagues are dissatisfied. He is looking for pussy and finds none, his pal Cpl. Trombley (Billy Lush) wants to shoot the enemy but does not have the opportunity, and Sgt. Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård) no doubt joined up because he saw the recruiting commercial where the knight kills a dragon (“Dress blues with a sword!”). We don’t get the sense that we can truly know these men, any more than most people know the acquaintances they work with at the office, since all the chit-chat in the humvee amounts to the same thing as struggling to kill time by the water cooler as an effort to get through another mundane day.
Much of the episode is spent in anticipation of combat and, as if to tease us, it is parceled out in little increments. Tension is created more through placing the humvee in vulnerable spots on rickety bridges and narrow inner-city streets lined with debris. Violence is seen at a distance, and when a sniper takes out two of the enemy, it’s seen in an ultra-wide shot. When the kill happens, it’s like seeing a pinpoint figure explode in crimson. I wonder how this level of detachment affects the viewer. Does this whet our appetite for more killing or have us go inside our heads and intellectualize the experience of disaffectedness?
The soldiers are so bored that one of them, a commanding officer who took an enemy AK-47 as contraband, opens fire on an unarmed Iraqi and takes him out. Generation Kill doesn’t linger on this, allowing the moment to speak for itself. When the Marines ask about it (“Did you just see that? I think he was unarmed!”) it’s tossed away like a fast food wrapper. “I didn’t see what the commander saw,” says another marine, shrugging it away as best he can. The scene is an effective one, and yet I’m as ambivalent about it as I am everything else in Generation Kill. The actors in the scene really seem to sink their teeth into this fleeting moment, perhaps because they are so constricted much of the time by playing characters who do their jobs, commit to activities, and reveal character through the doing of things rather than emotive feeling.
There’s little doubt that the battalion is heading towards a firefight as they pass through an enemy occupied town. The marines hunger to “set the tempo” in their skirmishes, and Generation Kill treats its big battle scene like a gigantic musical number where the peaks and crescendos are handled with bullets and grenades. There’s no source music in any of the episodes thus far, but the sound design dictates how excited we should feel. The cameras lurch and try to catch images on the fly, so a quick pan to a doorway will surely reveal an enemy soldier, and a tilt-up will catch a marine freaking out. Since we’ve been waiting for this the entire show, Generation Kill makes good on expectations. It doesn’t cover any ground we haven’t already seen in Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down, but it does make us wait for it a prolonged spell of time, and tricks us into thinking we somehow earned it.
Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.