Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

'Long Road Home' and the lack of honor in political, media leaders today

We are a nation led by men and women without honor. And that’s one of the reasons so many of us are so angry today.

That’s the thought on which I ended a binge screening late Sunday night of the seven-part National Geographic miniseries “The Long Road Home,” starring Michael Kelly (“House of Cards”). Based on the best selling book by Martha Raddatz of ABC News, the film compellingly chronicles the ambush of a small Army platoon in Sadr City, Baghdad, in 2004, which left eight Americans dead and more than 65 wounded. The blood-soaked battle and rescue came to be known as “Black Sunday.”

The emotional power of this outstanding production prompts reflections on honor and leadership — and recent events where they seem to be absent, events that leave you shaking your head, if not your first in outrage.

Consider the tech giants of Silicon Valley still refusing to take any real blame in congressional testimony for allowing Russia to use their platforms to pollute our informational ecosystem during the 2016 election. Or Kevin Spacey announcing his identity as a gay man as part of his response to allegations that he sexually assaulted a 14-year-old boy.

And you only have to go back another week or so to revisit President Trump’s spat with Myeshia Johnson, widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, who had just been killed in combat in Niger, to be further outraged.

Or how about the president’s ongoing battle and criticism of Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam War P.O.W. who refused freedom until his fellow prisoners were also freed? It was an act of honor most of us cannot even imagine. Yet Trump, who never served in the military, let alone in combat, mocked McCain, a Naval Academy graduate and fighter pilot, for getting captured.

I don’t know if the miniseries, which premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday*, will resonate with others as it did with me on the matter of honor. But let me briefly tell you why I think this is a special production.

As sheer drama, it is the most intense viewing experience I’ve had this year. I intended to give it 30 minutes when I started watching, but I was locked into it emotionally from the minute the soldiers, spouses, partners and children started their rituals of saying goodbye to each other at Fort Hood in Texas. Once the members of the 1st Cavalry Division found themselves under withering assault in the narrow, dusty, bombed-out streets of Sadr City, I was in a kind of viewing trance. I felt physically exhausted as I waited for the second episode to load.

And I am not a fan of combat films.

Unlike several feature films, “The Long Road Home” also does not demonize Iraqis in an attempt to wash away any guilt viewers might feel in seeing them die at the hands of American soldiers. The miniseries has a deep and multi-layered conversation about the American presence in Iraq and life under Saddam Hussein before the U.S. arrived. Writer and showrunner Mikko Alanne did a masterful job of allowing viewers to see the situation in Iraq from multiple points of view without losing any of the dramatic punch connected with the ambush and attempted rescue of the 1st Cavalry platoon in a part of Baghdad firmly under the control of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s army.

Best of all, the mini-series is almost ethnographic in the degree to which it takes us inside the culture of soldiers who are deployed and those who love them. One story line shows what life is like for a young man who returns paralyzed from his wounds. Viewers feel the day-to-day grind that he and his wife experience as he tries to adjust to never walking again. And we are shown how the culture goes out of its way to ignore families like his, so as not to have to think about what really happens to some soldiers sent off to fight by the politicians in Washington.

Another rich story line explores the toll on a young woman whose husband dies in the ambush. The scene of her denial and then despair when the Army team arrives on her front porch with the news is excruciating to witness. It is even more painful to watch her as she fingers the fabric inside the military coffin that will soon hold his remains.

But by that point in the miniseries, you have come to understand there is a moral obligation as an American to feel some of her pain. Yes, these are actors, but this is a non-fiction account of history written by a journalist. The pain being explored in this docudrama is not manufactured. Our fellow Americans experienced it, and some of them continue to live with its aftermath today.

And then there is the portrait of honorable leadership delivered by Kelly in his portrayal of Lt. Col. Gary Volesky. He’s quiet, steady, calm, decisive and absolutely focused on saving his soldiers. He puts himself in harm’s way to do that. And he admits his mistakes when he makes them.

After a year of what feels like nonstop watching and writing about Trump, I cannot start to describe what a pleasure it was to lose myself in a self-effacing onscreen figure who was focused on his leadership task rather than how to spin it in social media, someone who acknowledged his limits rather than using superlatives to exaggerate his accomplishments.

The lack of honorable leadership in this country extends far beyond the White House. So, too, does the anger.

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken expressed some of it Tuesday in questioning Colin Stretch, vice president and general counsel for Facebook, about Russia’s use of his company’s platform to buy political ads and sow seeds of conflict in American life as it did with ads targeting racial conflict in the months before and after the death of Freddie Gray.

“How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in rubles were coming from Russia? Those are two data points: American political ads and Russian money, rubles. How could you not connect those two dots?”

Franken let Stretch make the ridiculous claims that Facebook had been “intensely focused on” and “effectively addressed” the Russian threat to the American political process in 2016 before angrily interrupting.

“OK. People are buying ads on your platform with rubles,” the senator said in an outdoor voice. “You put billions of data points together all the time — that’s what I hear these platforms do. They’re the most sophisticated things put together by man, ever. … You can’t put together rubles with a political ad and go, ‘Hmmmm, those two data points spell out something bad’?”

“Senator, it’s a signal we should have been alert to,” Stretch replied.

No kidding. Are you sure you are really ready to go that far, Mr. Stretch?

What none of the tech companies are coming close to admitting is that they have any social responsibility to serve in the public interest of American citizens as radio and TV outlets must do to be licensed by the Federal Communication Commission. Policing content would cost money, and they are about making as much of it as they can while taking and peddling our private information to anyone who will pay — even in rubles during an American election in the midst of racial tensions. It’s a great business model if you don’t give a damn about American democracy.

What’s that ancient saying about the relationship between honor among thieves?

Honor might seem like too lofty a concept to use in discussing the allegations against Spacey that he sexually exploited boys. One of his accusers is actor Anthony Rapp who said Spacey sexually assaulted him in a hotel room when he was 14. I will leave the allegations alone for the moment to deal with his handling of them.

Spacey said he had no memory of the alleged incident. But if he did assault Rapp, his actions were the result of his being drunk — as if that’s an excuse.

In that same response, Spacey came out as a gay man, possibly linking what he allegedly did to Rapp with being homosexual in the minds of some. So much for any sense of responsibility to an oppressed community.

In terms of leadership, what about all those production employees in Maryland who are now wondering if there will be any more paychecks after production was suspended on “House of Cards” thanks to Spacey’s alleged past?

I know a seven-part miniseries is a big commitment of time. But give “The Long Road Home” 30 minutes Tuesday. And as you watch those soldiers battle for their lives in the dust of Iraq as their families struggle to keep it together emotionally back at Fort Hood, ask yourself how you would like to serve under a commander in chief who characterizes having to spend weekends at the White House as a hardship.

Thank you for your sacrifice, Mr. President. Thank you for your service.


If you go

“The Long Road Home” premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday* on National Geographic.


david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

This article has been updated. An earlier version listed an incorrect date for the premiere.
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