The narrative of war on "Generation Kill" unfolds as an exercise in readiness and restless waiting, along with misdirection from higher-ups.
As a chronicle of modern warfare, the seven-part HBO drama seems awfully authentic. How viewers will embrace this painstaking portrait of a war on which many already feel overdosed — well, that's another story.
The first episode (9 p.m. ET Sunday) begins in the northern desert of Kuwait at the staging ground where U.S. Marines of the elite First Reconnaissance Battalion prepare to invade Iraq. Headed for Baghdad, they are meant to serve as the "tip of the spear" in the early weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
This isn't the ideal mission for a hand-picked, highly trained group of warriors.
"Rolling through Iraq in open-top Humvees is completely outside of what First Recon does," declares Lt. Col. Stephen "Godfather" Ferrando. "But the general has asked this battalion to be America's Shock Troops, and Godfather can't tell the general we don't do windows."
As the Marines wait for orders to set off on their perilous, murkily justified road trip, there is plenty going on there in camp. An unauthorized espresso machine explodes in one of the tents. A distressing rumor makes the rounds that, back home, J.Lo has died. Marines in First Recon's Bravo Company give a wary welcome to Evan "Scribe" Wright (played by Lee Tergesen), an embedded reporter from Rolling Stone who will ride in one of the Humvees at the front of the invasion. He will turn his account into the 2004 book on which this series is based.
David Simon and Ed Burns, who executive produced and (with Wright) co-wrote "Generation Kill," were also the team behind HBO's drama series "The Wire."
There are many differences between those two projects, of course. "The Wire," which recently finished its five-season run, was a fictitious drama set in Baltimore. But it skillfully depicted local institutions (among them government, law enforcement and the journalism world), each saddled by bureaucracy and shortsightedness while a few hardy resisters fought back.
Like "The Wire," "Generation Kill" takes an exhaustive look at a flawed institution. The characters — all of whom are drawn from real life — are seen fighting their war in vivid detail.
But what kind of war is it?
Tough to judge series on its own terms
Before they even leave camp, these young men begin to have suspicions that military leadership didn't fully think things through; that the institution isn't giving them sufficient support. They inquire about the missing maps. They patch together their rattletrap Humvees.
"Marines make do," they tell themselves with pride and defiance.
Under way, they are ordered to turn loose rather than hold for questioning possible members of an Iraqi death squad. Farther on, they are told to abandon needy refugees attempting to surrender.
Watching that first stretch, some viewers of "Generation Kill" will feel the burden of what they've learned ever since. The film is meant as a portrait, not a polemic. But after five years and counting, the viewer may feel hard-pressed to watch, and judge, this series on its own terms.
Or does it matter?
"It's for viewers now to make of it what they will," says director Susanna White.
Maybe so. But she says her goal was to transport the viewer "back into that moment of what it felt like then — not draw on the hindsight we have now."
The London-born White began her film career in documentaries for British television, and went on to direct acclaimed BBC productions of "Jane Eyre" and Charles Dickens' "Bleak House."
For "Generation Kill," she directed episodes 1 through 3, then the conclusion. (Simon Cellan Jones, whose credits include "The Trial of Tony Blair," took charge for episodes 4 through 6).
During a recent chat, White lists the production's many challenges, including computer-generated imagery, stunt sequences, the various Africa locations and unpredictable weather (a dust storm blew away the catering tent).
But the biggest task was casting, she says. More than two dozen featured roles had to be filled, mostly, as it turned out, by unknowns. (Tergesen, a regular on the HBO prison drama "Oz," is the biggest name.)
Then White put her actors to work, as she explains with lingo better suited to her Victorian period pieces.
"Normally on a shoot you have one scene — your 'ballroom scene' — that has huge numbers of people. But on `Gen Kill,' every day was a 'ballroom scene' with all those guys, and we had to plan where each one of them would be. And not always in a fire fight," she cautions. During war, "the majority of your time is spent waiting for things to happen. The boredom of war: That was something we really wanted to portray."