Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Over There -- Part II

UPDATE. Yesterday, I reported watching the first episode of Over There and deferred to a milblogger whose analysis I respected. Today, Glenn Reynolds links to the Opinionated Bastard, who is inclined to defend the show. Under the heading "the Soldiers Are Wrong," he defends the program as an example of a venerable genre:

In WWII, Frank Capra refined the war picture genre to a high degree. A war picture needs certain elements to be true to the genre:

Only a few characters. The audience has to bond with the characters so having more then 4-5 characters diminishes that bond. In military terms, this means a platoon size is ideal. Naturally, this doesn't always make sense in reality. Why was a captain commanding a platoon in Saving Private Ryan?

Those few characters have to in aggregate represent all of America. So there will be a College Guy, an ethnic, (these days) a woman, a WASP, etc. This is one of the most Capraesqe parts of the genre; Capra specifically intended his films to be propaganda; the audience had to feel the platoon represented a representative slice of America.

Sergeants are tough bastards. Officers (especially lieutenants) are idiots. This isn't strictly necessary, but comes from two great truths: Americans hate authority, and sergeants have won more battles for America then any other type of soldier.

So does Over There have those elements? Of course it does. As a TV program, viewers have to be able to tune into any of these early shows and “get it” immediately. So the characters are going to be stereotypical and shallow at first.

Are the tactics vastly oversimplified? Of course. Complicated tactics won't be shown unless they have dramatic purpose. Similarly, on CSI, they can get DNA tests done in a day, where in real life they take 2 weeks.

So give the show a break guys. I think that while you'll always have problems with the technical accuracy, I think that Over There is going to turn out to be great TV.

This time I can base my points on a knowledge of the movies, not war. I disagree with Opinionated's argument. Note this description, via NPR, of the show's stated purpose:

The new, realist TV drama Over There focuses on a unit of U.S. soldiers and their lives on the ground in Iraq....

For two years, American TV viewers have watched the real-life drama of the war in Iraq unfold on the evening news. On Wednesday night, a fictional version will debut on cable channel FX...

It's the first series based on a war in progress and is the latest from Emmy-winning TV producer Steven Bochco.

Bochco's credits include NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues. Like much of his earlier work, Over There provides a gritty, emotional glimpse into the lives of its characters.

More is being promised here than a genre piece. In dramatic terms, "genre" and "realist" tend to be opposites rather than complements. Most of old Hollywood's productions were genre pieces, to the extent that those which were not tended to be lumped into the minority category "film noir." Westerns, musicals, sci fi adventures, and romances --as well as a great many war movies --were meant to entertain and captivate rather than educate. The exceptions among war movies of the WWII period were few and controversial. "The Best Years of Our Lives," for example, was deemed highly political and even subversive in some quarters. That's what realism can do to you in the film business.

Moreover, the word "realist" is not to be taken lightly in the context of an ongoing conflict. It's true that Capra began his war movie work during World War II, but I doubt very much that his purpose was to provide a "realistic" or "gritty emotional glimpse" of his characters. He was helping to sell a particular point of view on the war, which in his case happened to be that the war had to be fought and won. I believe many engaged in like endeavors at the time were not even squeamish about using the term 'propaganda.' Realism was not on the agenda for two reasons: 1) there was no precedent for filmed depictions of the true violence of war (This was more the province of the Russians, but even Alexander Nevsky pales beside Braveheart.) 2) The truly unbelievable savagery of the combat at Normandy, Iwo Jima, etc, would have undermined the successful sale of the pro-war message.

So what is it that Opinionated Bastard is telling us? That formulaic plots and characters festooned with quite realistic violence enacted in overly simplified combat situations can nevertheless be great TV. Great as entertainment perhaps, but certainly not much more emotionally valid than a 40s tearjerker starring Bette Davis. Unless we can be very very sure about the filmmakers' underlying purpose  -- because only his integrity can protect us from the manipulations made possible by easy shortcuts like the use pf 40s style "Brooklyn bomber crews" or 60s style "misfit Vietnam squads." We have to have some way of knowing that he has NOT picked out the emotion he wants to sell in advance and proceeded to fake his way to a cheap result.

When I read the catalog of misrepresentation and fakery presented by Faces from the Front, I can't help suspecting that Bochco may have as simplistic an agenda for his cheap tricks as Frank Capra did. It's not much of a leap from there to suspect that what Bochco is using his genre conventions for is to convince Americans that this war -- like just about every other war in the left's opinion -- is too costly and morally ambiguous to "waste" any more lives on.

I grant that not employing genre techniques might prove exceptionally challenging and even daunting. But the word "great" is usually reserved for rising to just such challenges.

The Opinionated one is fully entitled to his opinion. But I thought he deserved some responsive feedback.

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