Risky strategy is something that Ed Burns and David Simon, the creators of The Wire, know all about. They are the kind of dramatists who let a story build, rather than straining for the cheap thrills of televisual shock and awe. But in the space of the seven episodes making up Generation Kill, the risk doesn’t quite pay off. This is a slow, laboured war story about blunders and military stupidity rather than heroism. The problem is that it only manages to take off in the last two installments, and whilst you can afford to do this with a project like The Wire which consisted of five series of thirteen episodes each, a seven-parter like this needs to get going much earlier than episode six.
There is fine acting here; it’s wonderful to see the very talented James Ransone at work again (he plays Ray in Generation Kill; he was the contemptibly rat-like but compelling Ziggy Sobotka in series 2 of The Wire). However, unlike the brilliantly complex ghetto characters in The Wire, the Iraqis in Generation Kill are not given a voice or an identity, and the marines themselves, based on real-life characters, never really come to life. This is probably a result of the fact that the series is an adaptation of Evan Wright ‘s book-length account of his encounters with 1st Recon. In other words, Burns and Simon are hampered by taking on someone else’s research, and they don’t have the freedom to be truly creative in devising their drama. They would have been better off writing their own composite characters: in The Wire, Bunk, Omar, Ziggy and the rest are all powerful because they are composite creations based on local Baltimore inhabitants, not dutifully represented cut-outs from ‘real life.’ With such stylized creations, perhaps, the series might have been a truly great and angry indictment against an illegal war. As it is, all Burns and Simon manage is to make a handful of points about Operation Iraqi Freedom that have been made just as well by a good number of other journalists. After the adrenaline rush of The Wire’s intricate and passionate social commentary, this war yarn looks like merely competent drama. Generation Kill sinks a few punches but never manages to land a knockout blow.