Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Generation Kill vs. Stop-Loss

Before I start, let us pause for a moment on the fact that I just spent a half-hour making fake blood for work.

Ahem.

The RRHB and I have been watching Generation Kill, the 7-part miniseries by David Simon (the man responsible for The Wire, the best show ever produced for television) about the Iraq war. The series follows a group of highly trained Recon Marines as they follow the chain of command's increasingly stupid decisions and continue to come through their contact with the enemy fairly unscathed. It's also an uncensored look at the war from the point of view of Evan Wright, the Rolling Stone reporter embedded with First Recon who wrote a book about his experiences (with the same title as the show, Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War).

To make war drama effective it needs to look and feel real. But Generation Kill takes that even a step further, sure they blow stuff up a la Saving Private Ryan and they talk the talk (everyone is "Oscar Mike" and all kinds of other sweet-ass sayings you get into your head the minute they're uttered on screen), but the actors are so committed to the roles that it's almost as if you're watching a documentary. So much of the current culture around creating art of the Iraq conflict fails for many of the same reasons: it's too austere, it's too bloated, or it's just plain bad. None of these problems plague Generation Kill. All of these problems plague Kimberly Peirce's abysmal Stop-Loss, which we watched this weekend.

Ryan Phillippe plays SSgt Brandon King, at a loss to protect his unit from an ambush, who arrives back in the US thinking he's about to get out a hero (with a Purple Heart for his troubles) when he discovers he's been "stop-lossed" and will need to report back to base to be sent over for yet another tour in Iraq. Finally sensing the futility of his position and of the war itself, he goes AWOL and is on the run for most of the film. Only in BK's world "on the run" means taking off with your best friend's girlfriend (played with a strange swagger by Abbie Cornish), hiding out in lame hotels, getting into fights, visiting A WAR HOSPITAL, attending the ARMY FUNERAL of a member of his unit and never get caught. And (SPOILERS AHEAD) after all of that, after watching one guy basically kill himself, after visiting the parents of another member of his squad that died on that fateful day, he decides to just go back anyway. What the fark? At least give Canada a chance buddy, it's not so bad up here and it'll take Stephen Harper at least a couple of years to extradite you. Yawn.

The whole film is preposterous. Nothing makes any sense, it's bloated, and while the performances aren't terrible, the dialogue is cringe-worthy enough to make you wonder why anyone agreed to make this film in the first place. In sharp contrast, the men in Generation Kill walk, talk, and act like soldiers. They're Recon Marines, as Brad "Iceman" Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård) says, they've had air training, dive training, survival training and they're being wasted on ridiculously silly missions in Iraq, to which someone responds, 'it's sure not Afghanistan,' and they all cheers to the memory of the conflict apparently fought in a way they can respect.

And it's not like Phillippe is a terrible actor, just the opposite, I think. He was wonderful in the under-appreciated gem, Breach, which was one of my favourite films of last year. But in this case, the material is so beneath him. In Generation Kill, the material is so good the men absolutely rise to the occasion, but Skarsgård and James Ransone are so good it's not even apparent they're acting, which you're always aware of when Phillippe and his co-star, Channing Tatum, are on screen. Even if war films aren't your thing, I'd give Generation Kill a try, if only because now that So You Think You Can Dance is over (woot! woot! Joshua woot!) there's really nothing else to watch and not much is happening over at Mad Men just yet. It always comes back to what I'm consistently saying about books -- if the writing is good, then the content is kind of irrelevant, the story will hold up regardless.

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