Generation Kill

Generation Kill poster


The HBO miniseries Generation Kill comes from David Simon and Ed Burns, the masterminds behind the superlative series The Wire. Simon himself is a former journalist, the state thereof being a primary preoccupation of the fifth season of the The Wire. So it makes sense that he would be drawn to a war story seen through the eyes of a fellow writer. Generation Kill is based on the nonfiction book by Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone reporter embedded in the US Marine Corps 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, the first boots on the ground during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Actor Lee Tergesen plays Wright as a wide-eyed innocent among perverse killers, delightedly scribbling the marines’ colorful boastings in his notebook, when not dodging sniper fire. The most quotable is the manic driver Corporal Josh Ray Person, well-cast as James Ransone, basically reprising his character Ziggy Sobotka from The Wire season two.

The marines’ lingo flashes back to pop culture circa 2003, which already seems so very far away. A rumor spreads that J-Lo is dead, reminding us of the brief period when Jennifer Lopez was the most desired woman on the planet. Everyone’s a “dog” or “bra” (not as in the undergarment but as in “bro”). In between harrowing battles (which the warriors long for but hate when they arrive), much of their experience is comprised of long stretches of boredom. They supply their own soundtrack, recollecting what lyrics they can and recreating every part of a song a cappella with great enthusiasm.

Generation KillCpl. Josh Ray Person: “When my band opened up for Limp Bizkit in Kansas City, we fucking sucked. But then again, so did they. The only difference is that they became famous and I became a marine.”

After exhausting the conversational value of their bowel movements and each other’s alleged sexual orientations, there’s nothing but time to talk about the origins and motivations of the war. One popular theory is that it is a nothing but another race war. As one soldier puts it, it’s “White man’s destiny to rule the world” and “White man won’t be denied.” Or is it to clear the ground for more Starbucks franchises? Or maybe it’s a war over the scarcest resource of all: virgins.

Marines are trained to depersonalize and vilify the enemy, all with the aim of being effective killers. So they are essentially ill-equipped for a 21st century war in which they are expected to request permission before engaging any target, and for situations in which they must deal diplomatically with the civilian population – some of which may be threats in disguise, but most often are just people who either need their help or would rather they just leave. When the marines do wish to offer compassion, they are thwarted by their command or by cold hard reality – oftentimes there’s nothing they can do. They’re also fatally underequipped in a literal sense: they’re issued less body armor than Wright was able to purchase on eBay, they have state-of-the-art nightvision goggles but no batteries, and as if they didn’t stand out enough, they’re clad in the wrong camouflage style. They subsist on only one M.R.E. (Meal, Ready to Eat) each day, supplemented with copious caffeine pills, Skittles, Hustler, and Skoal. But as one marine quips, “Semper Gumby – always flexible.” As characterized here, these Marines never miss an opportunity to bitch, but pride themselves on being able to “make do.”

Generation KillLt. Col. Stephen ‘Godfather’ Ferrando: “What’s foremost in Godfather’s mind? We’re still very much in the game, gentlemen.”

Aside from the frustratingly elusive Iraqi army or suicide bombers, there are few antagonists marines hate more than Reservists, the Army, and their own incompetent command. But they gradually learn that their superiors are often far wiser than they realized. Lieutenant Colonel Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando (Chance Kelly) (so nicknamed because of a hoarse voice derived from lung cancer) nearly causes a mutiny by refusing to aid a fatally injured Iraqi boy. In a rare deference from a man that has no need to explain himself to his subordinates, he explains in detail why he made his decision: it was literally impossible to save the boy. Later, he reveals to the reporter that he is always fully conscious of ineffective commanders like the grossly incompetent Captain Dave McGraw (Eric Nenninger), known to his detractors as “Captain America.” Godfather can’t always act on every single infraction, lest policing his people become his entire role in the military machine. Even the reprehensible Sergeant Major John Sixta (Neal Jones) turns out to be more canny than anyone suspected; he knows his job is to make himself into a cartoon villain against which the men can direct their frustrations. His role is part of the time-tested marine tradition: a morale-building figure. And for audiences of this series, a bit of comic relief (“That helmet is the proppity of the Yoo-Ess-of-Ay!”).

I found the series to be disappointingly fractured, no rival at all to Simon and Burns’ masterpiece the Wire. Only the sublime final scene rises to the vaulted heights The Wire regularly reached. One marine had spent weeks shooting and editing a home movie of the invasion. When the company finally reaches Baghdad, they find they literally cannot watch the completed movie. Each walks away, in silence, one by one. In the tradition of The Wire, this closing montage is set to a perfectly chosen piece of music (Johnny Cash’s apocalyptic “When the Man Comes Around”) and sends shivers down the spine.

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Menace II Society

Menace II Society movie poster


Let me just come out and say it: I utterly and totally loathed Menace II Society. The Dork Report’s 1/2 star rating is reserved for true cinematic crimes against humanity, movies that I think the world would have been a better place had they not been made (zero stars are for those rare and special cases, beyond the pale, where bad transmutes into good, like the perversely enjoyable Plan 9 From Outer Space – read The Dork Report review). Of course, I’m a relatively privileged white boy from suburbia, so it’s going to be tricky for me to explain my passionately negative reaction to a movie about African Americans trapped in racist, drug-infested Watts, South Central Los Angeles. The cheap way out would be to claim I’m not the target audience, but that itself would be a kind of racist copout.

Menace II Society

The best way to explain how I feel about this movie is to compare it to two of the best works of fiction I’ve ever seen: Do the Right Thing (1989) and The Wire (2002-08). Menace II Society opens with stock footage of 1965 Watts riots, and then fast-forwards to Watts in 1993. It’s a cheap and crass stab at social relevance that only movies like Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing have earned. I don’t know how much factual or biographical truth is in Menace II Society, but everything that follows strikes me as exploitation; which is to say, the worst, most sensationalized depictions of drug culture dramatized to scare the bejeezus out of supposedly civilized cinema goers. Do the Right Thing presented one of the most complex views of racial tension ever seen in the movies, but Menace II Society is a mere lowlights reel of relentless violence and depravity that seemed to me to be racist itself. Caine (Tyrin Turner), O-Dog (Larenze Tate), and Tat (Samuel L. Jackson), not a single character can speak a single sentence without at least three n-words and two f-bombs.

The Wire is one of the only TV series to approach the level of literature, and like Do the Right Thing it counts race among its many deep themes. Many of its characters are also underprivileged African Americans on the wrong side of the law. But not once did I ever sense The Wire was exploitative or sensationalistic in any way. Menace II Society barely deserves to be mentioned in the same paragraph as The Wire, but I did note a very similar scene in both: in the second season of The Wire, Bodie and Shamrock take a rare road trip out of Baltimore and, unable to find any hip-hop on the radio, instead find themselves listening to NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion in baffled silence. Likewise, the best scene in Menace II Society is of an African American family at home on Christmas Eve watching It’s a Wonderful Life, and utterly unable to relate to or derive any pleasure from it.

Menace II Society

Menace II Society (1993, New Line Cinema) is the debut film from twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, who would later go on to direct From Hell (2001), and completely miss the point of the source material: Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel. In direct contrast to John Singleton’s simply, classically shot Boyz n the Hood (read The Dork Report review), Menace II Society is a slickly polished production (which, I believe, only contributes to its glamorization of the thug gangsta lifestyle). But it’s a clumsy film in other ways, with terrible voiceover narration stupidly telling instead of showing. But it pays off in the end with the realization of the only interesting device of the film: it’s narrated by a dead man.

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