MILKING IT: Desperate for a hit movie or series on the Iraq War
The orchestrated media blow job used to announce HBO's "Generation Kill" tonight affords another opportunity to look at how desperate writers, producers and their fuglemen in the entertainment press are for a hit. Fundamentally, they'll do just about anything to milk entertainment value out of the Iraq War.
"Generation Kill" is based on a book by Rolling Stone correspondent Evan Wright. Wright was one of the many embedded correspondents, sent out to witness the war firsthand while the country was in its gee-whiz-this-is-going-to-be-a-fun-war mood.
The Los Angeles Times has written no less than three pieces of hagiography on "Generation Kill" in the last week, kicked off by one entitled "Boots On the Ground" by Matea Gold. ("Boots on the ground" is one of the gold-plated cliches of the war on terror, one coined to denote a swarm of US soldiers descending upon a foreign country. We'll map it further along in this post.)
At the beginning of the Iraq War, being a correspondent along for the ride was a plum opportunity. The amount of press generated by the corps of embeds and the flavor of it five years ago is astonishing. The mainstream press' coverage of the Iraq War was the real-time work of a professional team of apple-polishers, vieing with each other over career postings which could be parlayed into status, promotions, fame and book deals.
"When [Evan Wright] ... was picked to ride with the special forces unit [the Marine Corps' First Recon Battalion], the other reporters gathered at The Kuwait Hilton
to find out where they would be embedded 'looked at me with sheer hatred and envy'," Wright told Gold.
"I didn't know what 1st Recon was, but if all these reporters were so jealous, it must be a good spot," he told the newspaper.
Inadvertently, it encapsulates a prevailing attitude, one in which the news media acted as self-serving cheerleaders instead of probing examiners. Riding up front into Iraq was a ticket-puncher, a golden ring not to be messed with.
One can contrast "Generation Kill" -- one of the many books written by embeds (it seems that every journalist who was over there
got a publishing deal) with something written from a very different war and time: E. B. Sledge's seminal account of Marines at war in the Pacific, "With the Old Breed."
"With the Old Breed," published in 1981 by the military book firm, Presidio Press, was never made into a movie. Sledge, a Marine, as far as your host can determine, was never ferried around Hollywood or given the benefit of lapdog publicity. Your host came by a copy of "With the Old Breed" in the early Eighties as a member of the long defunct Military Book Club. (Sledge died in 2001. Parardoxically, "With the Old Breed" appears to have been recently optioned to HBO for a future project.)
The point to be made is that there have been many bona fide you-are-there books written on the fighting man (feel free to name your favorite), many from war which the entire country, not just a volunteer force, was engaged in. This, as opposed to a war which polls now regularly show a majority of the American public believes to have not been worth fighting. Yet the grasping industrial-strength mass media process of wringing every last drop of profit and entertainment from American war is a relatively recent phenomenon, one seemingly touched off by the earlier book/movie combinations -- "Blackhawk Down" and "Jarhead."
In receiving the wagon train of hype ushering in "Generation Kill" one had to swallow a number of inane claims -- cliches -- about its so-called unique vision among war movies.
These included (try not to laugh as you recall all the war movies you've already seen):
(1) No one has shown the Marines like this before.
(2) "Generation Kill" shows the incompetence of command.
(3) It is gritty and authentic.
(4) This movie is different from other Iraq War movies and TV shows. "I think this one is a little different," said David Simon, one of "Generation Kill's HBO minders, rather predictably one might add, to the Los Angeles Times.The wisdoms of the military-style promotional campaign
"We have seen no shortage of films and television series about the war in Iraq." --the Chicago Sun-Times
"Earlier this year, David M. Halbfinger wrote about the challenges faced by movie studios in trying to find audiences for movies about Iraq. HBO will try to buck the trend when they bring the war to television with “Generation Kill,” a seven-part mini-series beginning Sunday. It is not clear why so many of these films have struggled at the box office. Is it because they weren’t very good or just that audiences have lost interest in the Iraq war?" -- NY Times
"Bolstered by superb acting and first-rate direction and cinematography, 'Kill' delivers the goods in ways both unexpected and rewarding" -- Hollywood Reporter
"The seven-part program aims to depict Marines, in all their human complexity, during the 2003 invasion." -- The Los Angeles Times
"Generation Kill is not easy to like" -- perhaps not unexpectedly, not from the US press, but the Montreal Gazette
. "The characters seem overly familiar and clichéd - inarticulate, foul-mouthed, grumbling chowderheads from any number of war movies and TV shows."
"Generation Kill -- TV at its blistering best." -- Salt Lake Tribune
"Commanding officers are buffoons." -- Boston Herald
"Viewers are left to figure most everything for themselves." -- Allentown Morning Call
"They were 'the tip of the spear' for Operation Iraqi Freedom. They were the guys on the ground. They were the young Marines ..." -- Cleveland Plain DealerThey were the young Marines (now doing the Hollywood shuffle)
Strike while the iron is hot. If in the war movie of the moment, peddle your own projects and scripts.
"It's a long way from Baghdad to one of Hollywood's most exclusive film viewing venues -- the lushly appointed screening theatre at Paramount Studios -- but Marine Sgt. Rudy Reyes has made the journey across the physical and cultural divide," wrote the Los Angeles Times, in "Devil dogs charge into Hollywood."
Reyes, readers are told, is trying his hand at regular acting after playing himself in "Generation Kill."
Joining Reyes were Staff Sgt. Eric Kocher and Cpl. Jeff Carisalez. The latter two also had roles in "Kill" and "all three Marines have found second acts in Hollywood."
Kocher and Reyes are peddling a screenplay. "I don't want to give it away, but we're thinking about something built around [samurai]" readers are informed.
Boots on the ground
"Boots on the ground" -- a phrase used by the media used to describe a swarm of US soldiers going to a foreign land to deliver American firepower, started active duty in 2001-2002.
Then it was most often seen in stories on the American response being mounted against Afghanistan. Between the two years, it was deployed in 64 major pieces.
One example, from CNN, retroactively illustrates the emptiness of the phrase: "Eyes in the skies, boots on the ground
, the U.S. forces continue their hunt for Osama bin Laden inside Afghanistan."
In 2003, boots on the ground
appeared 175 times, sometimes in embarrassing piffle like this newspaper opinion piece extolling the Iraq adventure.
"Boots on the ground
, hearts on sleeves: Soldiers in all wars are called upon to be heroes, but our men and women in Iraq are called upon to define a new sort of heroism. First, they must endure the insanity of war, fighting off fedayeen ambushes, withstanding the suicide bombings and mortars, kicking down doors and searching homes."
Or, how about, this opinion piece of one of the original think-tank cheerleaders for war, Michael O'Hanlon:
"Do the Math: We Need More Boots on the Ground," read the headline. And -- no, O'Hanlon is not specifically or particularly presciently asking for more troops in Iraq. It's about making the US military larger worldwide for every contingency and battle.
"Given our all-volunteer force, we need to start recruiting now," wrote O'Hanlon.
In 2004, stomping "boots" were sighted in 204 news stories, many showing growing recognition that the party was over in Iraq.
"How Many Boots on the Ground" was the headline of a news report by reporters Rod Nordland, Babak Deghanpisheh, John Barry and Eve Conant.
"Many U.S. troops say it's one more broken promise. They landed in Iraq planning to rotate out after six months. Then Washington extended their stints to a full year. That was the limit, the Pentagon swore: just '365 days, boots on the ground,' not a day longer."
Hollywood began thrilling to "Boots on the ground" in 2005. That year showed about the same hackwork use of it in as 2004.
"War is hell but it can also be high drama," intoned one newspaper feature. "In boots-on-the-ground documentaries like Gunner Palace
and Occupation: Dreamland
, we got a discomfiting look at the brutal realities and moral ambiguities of America's war in Iraq, where the death toll rises along with the administration's rhetoric.
"Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories
is a lesser piece of work. Its maker, ABC-TV freelancer Mike Shiley, has cluelessly boasted that he joined an Army tank unit as a gunner and earned a civilian combat award after firing in a village along the Syrian border. The Iraqi-made doc The Dream of Sparrows
may be the most disturbing of all, a glimpse of life under occupation in which Iraqis directly address Western viewers in tones ranging from despair to anger to guarded hope."
Infantry Magazine, the magazine of the US Army's Infantry School, informed readers of a new book, uniquely entitled, "Boots on the Ground
"Boots on the Ground, Stories of American Soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan," is edited by [Clint Willis]. "[With] more than 30 anthologies to his credit, [Willis] edited this anthology of 22 accounts of men at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ten of the stories are reprinted from nine different national magazines, seven stories are reprinted from four big city newspapers and the last five stories are taken from private sources."
In 2006, boots on the ground
appeared almost 300 times.
"A terrible idea: More U.S. boots on the ground
in Iraq ..." opined the Orlando Sentinel.
And in the last two years, the phrase has taken real wing, used over three hundred times in 2007 and now on-track for around three-hundred fifty at the half-way point of 2008. No longer employed in stories on the US military, boots on the ground
has crossed over into any common usage where the writer needs a colorful cliche to describe a swarm of people descending as a military force, anywhere, to defeat a problem which stubbornly refuses to be easily overcome.
All the Boots on the Ground
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