Through the first episode of Generation Kill, HBO's miniseries about the elite Marine unit that led the first invasion of the Iraq war, it was difficult to keep track of which helmeted, smudged-faced character was which. I feared writer-producer David Simon (creator of The Wire) and longtime collaborator Ed Burns were just resorting to the old ''disorient the audience because war is really disorienting'' trope. I shoulda known better this is one wild, cliché-busting trip. By the second of Kill's seven hours, I'd learned: who the sane center of this story would be (Alexander Skarsgard's quiet but firm Sgt. Brad Colbert); how Jennifer Lopez plays a big part in Marine fantasy life; and why Charms candy is bad luck in this war. Now, having watched all five of the episodes HBO sent for review, I'm psyched for more of this head-spinningly thoughtful work. Unlike Steven Bochco's 2005 Iraq-war flop Over There, Kill is unconcerned with sympathetic characters it lets its fact-based drama speak for itself.
Kill is adapted from a book by Rolling Stone correspondent Evan Wright, who was embedded with those Marines and is a writer on the miniseries. He's also a character; as played by Oz's Lee Tergesen, he's our innocent-eyed surrogate among the soldiers as they bump over desert terrain (Kill was shot in Africa) in Humvees that look as though they're always on the verge of breaking down. The men, however, do not. They're fighting a good fight despite equipment that's so antiquated, one of them compares it to Gilligan's Island: ''They're giving us rocks and coconuts to make radios.'' One standout performer is Wire vet James Ransone, who, as Cpl. Ray Person, dispenses eloquent screeds about following often contradictory orders, saying tartly, ''You know what happens when you get out of the Marine Corps? You get your brains back.''
Kill's blithely cynical tone when an Iraqi citizen waves at the troops, a Marine responds, ''Thank you; vote Republican!'' never comes off as showbiz liberalism or cheap humor. You can tell that the writers responded to Wright's clear-eyed reporting with all the precise details that accumulate to create a nuanced look at young men thrown into circumstances way beyond their control.
You may end up thinking we shouldn't be over there, or that we should be fighting, but with better planning and equipment. (You probably won't think these early days were leading to a rapid ''mission accomplished.'') Still, Kill pays both you and its subjects two solid compliments: It doesn't scream ''Take heed: This is a work of art!'' And it lets you form your own opinions about what its social commentary is. A-