Deja View

Fact and fiction about the war in Iraq come face to face in the new FX drama 'Over There'

Acts Of War

Cover Story

July 24, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

One of the first images in Over There, a ground-breaking TV drama about the war in Iraq that makes its premiere Wednesday night on the cable channel FX, features a young female soldier standing in a phone booth as her comrades hurry past headed for planes that are Baghdad-bound. "[Expletive], I know I'll get killed. I seen those faces on Nightline. I said, '[Expletive], girl, that's me. Every one of 'em is me,' " she says bitterly into the receiver, referring to pictures of soldiers and Marines killed in Iraq that aired on a controversial edition of the ABC News show in April 2004.

The words, tableau and her tear-choked voice combine for a striking moment: a frightened character in a TV drama linking herself to the emotionally charged real-life images of dead soldiers and Marines from a much-debated news program about a war now going on. It's a postmodern hall of video mirrors -- one television show commenting on another that itself had commented on a divisive and deadly war. With all of it flashing by less than two minutes into the pilot, it is quickly apparent that Over There is not typical summertime escapist fare.

"The characters in our show refer to Abu Ghraib [the infamous prison in Iraq], Al-Jazeera [the Arab TV news channel] or things on Nightline, because they know the same things we do," said Chris Gerolmo, who along with Steven Bochco serves as co-creator and executive producer of the series.

"This is the first war being fought almost in real time all over the media. It's beyond cable news even, with soldiers writing blogs on the Internet and sending video e-mails to their loved ones about things that might have happened today," Gerolmo said. "And that presents special challenges to filmmakers like us: We have to live up to a very high expectation of accuracy and realism. But there is a real power in such references and replication when we get them right."

While millions of Americans have gone to battle in the nation's history, popular culture is the forum through which most citizens actually experience and make sense of war. Tens of thousands of readers came to understand what it meant to be in uniform during World War II through best-sellers written by Norman Mailer and James Jones. Tens of millions of filmgoers visited and revisited the nightmare of combat in Vietnam through such works as Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket.

But those novels and films -- like all previous TV series about war -- were created after those historic events took place, giving the authors, filmmakers and society itself time to digest the enormity of the experiences. Over There is the first scripted television program to depict a war while it is being fought.

(While there were feature films such as Bataan and Wake Island that played in theaters during World War II, they were made under the control of the government's Office of War Information, with their messages strictly controlled. Gerolmo said the producers of Over There declined government help to ensure their storytelling independence.)

As much as the lines between news and entertainment have been blurred in recent years, there is still something strangely unsettling about watching a drama in which the characters look and act exactly like soldiers one has been seeing the last two years in life-and-death firefights on all-news cable channels.

The dominant image of the pilot episode of Over There is that of seven American soldiers in desert combat gear hunkered down in the dust on a humpback ridge trying to avoid enemy fire as they lay siege to a bombed-out building. It is a scene that with the touch of a channel changer one might find being played out for real on CNN.

"Keith Neely, our production designer, is constantly taking pictures off the Internet and out of newspapers and trying to match them as close as we can in Chatsworth, California," where the show is filmed, Gerolmo said. "I mean, he's really trying to live up to the responsibility of replicating something that people can see on another channel right now."

But the replication and sense of realism are only a means to the end of taking viewers inside the hearts and minds of the young soldiers on the ridge.

"On the news, they can tell you that war is heart-breaking or war is devastating. But in Over There, you'll feel it. We can give you a powerful, visceral, gut-wrenching experience by putting you in the situation of these kids in battle in Iraq who are trying to save themselves and each other. ... Our ultimate goal is to get the viewers emotionally involved with these kids," Gerolmo said.

Generating such empathy is inherently easier to do in TV drama than it is in news. Weekly episodic television, through sheer repetition and familiarity, can foster incredibly intense relationships between viewers and characters. The feelings of affection or hate for fictional characters sometimes can be stronger than those felt toward real people

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