HBO rolls the dice on pricey 'Generation Kill'

The Baltimore Sun

America may be very much at war, but in the nation's pop culture trenches, telling stories about Iraq is a losing battle.

That truth has become increasingly clear as the same American majority that supported the start of the war in 2003 has come to consistently tune out feature films, TV series, books and nightly news accounts about the conflict today.

In July 2005, cable channel FX introduced producer Steven Bochco's Over There, the first TV drama to air concurrently with a war in which it was set.

Despite much advance praise, the series about a platoon of Army soldiers fighting in Iraq bombed in the ratings. It was canceled after just 13 episodes.

In the past two years, there has been a steady stream of theatrical films, some by such acclaimed directors as Brian De Palma and Kimberly Peirce, that have all flopped at the box office. They include Redacted, No End in Sight , In the Valley of Elah and Stop -Loss.

As HBO prepares for a July 13 launch of the most expensive TV production yet on the Iraq war, Generation Kill - a seven-part, $55 million miniseries about a battalion of young Marines in the lead of America's invasion force - analysts wonder about the cable channel's big gamble and whether any film or TV series can penetrate America's pop culture aversion to the war.

And though a debate over the war is still part of the presidential campaign, experts question how it is that so many who wanted the nation to invade Iraq now seem to be going out of their way to avoid bearing any on-screen witness to the results.

"I think most of America has kind of become numb to it," Eric Kocher, a senior military adviser for the HBO miniseries, says of the conflict in Iraq.

"I mean it's the same thing: Where are all the yellow flags on the cars, you know? You saw them big in the beginning of the war, but with America's attention deficit disorder, they lost interest in it now, and they don't want to see it anymore," says Kocher.

He was one of the Marines depicted in Evan Wright's Rolling Stone articles and book of the same title, on which the cable channel's miniseries adapted by Baltimore's Ed Burns and David Simon is based.

Philip Seib, editor of the journal Media, Conflict and War, uses the term "Iraq fatigue" to describe the mood of the American public when it comes to Iraq.

"You can see it in the political polling, with people saying that the economy is the big issue and they are not interested in the war," says Seib, a University of Southern California professor of journalism and public policy.

"Except for those with family or friends in the war, it just seems so remote, pointless and maybe endless, that they have tuned it out. Also, people don't think they can have much of an effect on things when it comes to this war, and that's most unfortunate."

If Americans were avoiding only dramatized film and TV versions of the war like Over There and Stop-Loss, that would be one thing, analysts say.

But more troubling is the fact that the public's aversion has spread to news accounts and journalistic books about the war as well - with publishers and network executives taking note.

Kimberly Dozier, the Peabody Award-winning CBS News correspondent who was seriously wounded by a bomb blast in 2006 while covering the war, says she had a difficult time finding a publisher for a book about her injuries and road to recovery, even though her near-fatal attack in Baghdad was front-page news around the world.

The reason she almost didn't find a publisher is that "books on Iraq don't sell," Dozier says, recalling what editors told her when she was shopping the book and informed them that it would have a strong focus on Iraq.

"But I had to admit that when we put Iraq on TV, people are changing the channel. ... Every chance we get, it seems like we turn away from Iraq."

(Dozier did eventually find a publisher in Meredith Books of Des Moines, Iowa. Her powerful and widely praised narrative of injury and recovery, Breathing the Fire, was published May 13. At the end of last week, it ranked 21,748 at Amazon.com. There were no books about Iraq in Amazon's Top 100.)

Most disturbing to some critics is the sharp cutback in network TV news coverage of the war during the past six months.

Through the third week of June (just under half a year), the evening newscasts on NBC, ABC and CBS had combined for 181 weekday minutes of Iraq coverage. That's precipitously down from 1,157 minutes shown during 2007, according to data from Andrew Tyndall, a TV analyst who monitors network news.

"One reason the public is tuning out Iraq is that the news media, for the most part, are tuning out," says USC's Seib. "Without consistent reminders about Iraq from news organizations, the topic slides down the issues agenda."

Dozier, now based in Washington, thinks the public has tuned out the war in part because it is confused.

First, it was covered as a victory, then a debacle, and now there are conflicting analyses as to whether the surge and rebuilding efforts are working.

"The public, like the press on the ground, and even the commanders on the ground, got whipsawed by Iraq," Dozier says in an e-mail. "That's fairly devastating for troops on the ground, who are working their guts out, and believe they're actually getting somewhere - and it seems like folks back home don't know or don't care. Who gets the blame? We, the media!"

Burns, the former Baltimore police detective who serves as executive producer along with Simon and others on the HBO miniseries, also places some of the blame on the media - but only some.

"We live in a media-controlled society, and the emphasis now is on the economy," he says. "I guess they're sort of ducking this war because it's better to fight a war when no one is looking."

But Burns also points to the national psyche to explain Iraq avoidance.

"I think there's almost a shame we feel because we're living on two parallels," says the former writer and producer of The Wire. "There's a war on one street, you know, and America on another street - and we're not meeting up. So, you know, you sort of feel you should be there, but you're not."

So, will the big-budget Generation Kill succeed in finding a mass audience when so many productions have failed?

Burns says that is not his concern.

"I'm sure the HBO executives might be concerned about them, but I have no feeling for the numbers," he says. " ... I haven't seen any of these other shows on Iraq, so I don't know how good they were or how bad they were."

Kocher says he has seen some of the other films, and he believes Generation Kill is different.

"I think this is one of the first movies or series that you actually get to see what it's really like over there - and the decisions these guys have to make under the stressful conditions, under the fog of war and everything else," he says.

In Kocher's estimation, most of the films and TV productions that failed "overdramatized" the war, offering black-and-white renderings with "everybody either as a hero" - or "the opposite" with an "anti-war" point of view.

"Some people don't agree with me, but there were really no heroes in Generation Kill," he says. "I always tell people I think the war is kind of the background. This is more like a portrait of a day in the life of your average Marine in combat. I mean, that's why I think this series is going to do OK."

Most analysts are not expecting a big audience for Generation Kill. Given the mood of the country and a history of box office failure for Iraq projects, they doubt that even a quality production like HBO's will find much mainstream traction.

"Not now, not in this climate, when so many people feel so frustrated and helpless about the war, and seem like they just don't want to think about it until after the election in November," says Shirley Peroutka, a professor of media studies at Goucher College.

Still, she applauds HBO for trying:

"So what if the public doesn't want to see it? What's the purpose of TV anyway if not to tell these kinds of important stories?"

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

The war on the screen

* Over There: TV series debuted 8/27/05 on cable channel FX. Average audience 2.1 million. Steven Bochco drama about a platoon of soldiers in Iraq. Canceled after 13 episodes.

* No End in Sight. Documentary released in theaters 7/27/07. Box office gross $1.43 million. Chronicle of Iraq's descent into chaos after U.S. invasion.

* In the Valley of Elah. Feature film 9/14/07. $6.78 million. Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon in a murder mystery about the death of a soldier back from Iraq.

* Lions for Lambs. Feature film 11/9/07. $15 million. Robert Redford directs Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise in an exploration of America's war on terror.

* Redacted. Feature film 11/16/07. $65,000. Collection of stories about soldiers fighting in Iraq, directed by Brian De Palma.

* Stop-Loss. Feature film 3/29/08. $10.9 million. Kimberly Peirce film about a young soldier from Texas forced back to Iraq for another tour of duty.

Source: Sun reporting and boxofficemojo.com

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