Steve Bochco Brings TV War to TV

A female soldier in fatigues stands at a phone booth, starkly framed against a clean, white U.S. Army barracks, fretting over her imminent deployment to Iraq. “I know I’m going to get killed,” she says, nervously fingering the phone cord. “I’ve seen those faces on Nightline. Every one of ‘em’s me.” The comment comes early in the one-hour pilot episode of Over There, the scripted TV show about the Iraq war scheduled to air on the FX Channel in July. The soldier on the phone-nicknamed ” Mr. B” and played by Nicki Aycox-is referring to the April 2004 special from ABC News that showed the faces of the then-500-plus soldiers who had perished in Iraq. At the time, some offended affiliates pre-empted the program. “The media, arguably, has a greater role in communicating the realities of this war than ever before, and, consequently, is an important element of the conflict,” wrote Over There producer Steve Bochco via e-mail, while vacationing in Hawaii.

The nearly completed version of the pilot, screened this week by The Observer, owes a heavy debt to the woozy, muted visuals of Steven Spielberg’s Greatest Generation epic, Saving Private Ryan-but with its boilerplate foxhole drama of men in combat modernized with the addition of a couple of women, speed-metal music and references to Abu Ghraib.

To depict contemporary warfare on television, Mr. Bochco and his characters had to address the impact of TV itself on perceptions of the war.

“Were we not to acknowledge the fact of Al Jazeera, CNN, satellite communication, e-mail, etc., and the way in which it permeates all aspects of the conflict, we wouldn’t be painting a realistic portrait of the environment,” Mr. Bochco explained.

Mr. Bochco, the veteran TV producer behind Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, has said he wants his war drama to hew as closely to reality as possible while avoiding the appearance of bias.

In a war that isn’t finished-let alone settled in history-it’s hard not to be seen as taking sides. Nightline host Ted Koppel sought neutrality when he aired the names and faces of the war dead, a concept he told The Observer at the time was a “Rorschach test.” The program, Mr. Koppel said then, was partly “a reflection of what [viewers] bring to it.”

Chris Gerolmo, the writer and director of Over There, said he had a similar approach to making his fictional version of the war. “We’re just going to try to be as straightforward and realistic as we possibly can,” Mr. Gerolmo said, “and let the audience decide what to do about that.”

The pilot’s setup-looking at the war and its moral quandaries through the eyes of a handful of young soldiers in a single platoon-inherently tips its sympathies toward the U.S. military. Iraqi insurgents are largely faceless, spending their fragmentary airtime running around and getting killed in large numbers.

“We came to kick your ass!” a particularly gung-ho soldier named Bo screams during a chaotic gun battle.

The young grunts are seen in all their elements: having sex, shooting off weapons, getting shot at (and, less often, shot), and musing on the gory death they witness-and in every case, cause.

In one instance, an Arab insurgent’s legs keep on ghoulishly walking after his top half is blown off by a rocket, his glistening guts poking out of what’s left of his torso. Another is seen through a rifle scope as he takes a bullet in the head. Later, the U.S. soldiers examine their handiwork up close, their moral questioning reduced to stunned muteness.

Meanwhile, the explicit interpretations of the news media are never far away. In another scene, the world-weary squadron commander, dug in behind a dirt barricade, schools the “virgin” soldiers who’ve just arrived on why they can’t attack a group of insurgents holed up in a mosque. “Al Jazeera has a cameraman in there!” the commander yells at a soldier who’s about to fire. Explaining that they’re essentially in a battle for public relations, the commander asks bitterly: “Does that sound like war to you?”

The Iraqis are also aware of TV-news imagery, as when captured insurgents cry out indignantly, “You will take me to Abu Ghraib!”

“I take my clothes off now!” spits another, as the standard TV film stock flashes to cable-news-style Betacam video.

Even that scene has the effect of drawing sympathy for the soldiers, who are portrayed as too confused to be blamed for what they’re involved in.

In individual vignettes, during intimate “getting to know you” conversations between soldiers, each of the characters talks about their lives back home as, say, high-school quarterback or aspiring singer, as if in an “Army of One” recruitment ad.

That’s soon followed by a jump-cut scene in which those same soldiers stand dazed after a bloody gun battle, or after a roadside bomb has blown off a cohort’s leg, leaving a mushy pile of blood and muscle tissue.

The back-and-forth approach echoes coverage of the actual Iraq conflict, which has generally toggled between two different wars’ visual and narrative vocabularies: the patriotic righteousness of World War II or the tragic senselessness of Vietnam.

Mr. Gerolmo said Over There’s look draws heavily from films about both of those conflicts: Steven Spielberg’s World War II movie Saving Private Ryan and Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam flick, Full Metal Jacket.

“You can look at the first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, if you want to stage a battle,” said Mr. Gerolmo, referring to the multiple filters, film stocks and handheld cameras used to shoot those scenes. “Every single possible technique you can use, they used. We watched that religiously. For the base back at home, we watched Full Metal Jacket.”

He said the clean, square shots of Army bases were based on the Kubrick film.

“Those two models were very, very large in our minds,” he said.

But because the war remains undecided and ambiguous, Mr. Gerolmo said the story line remained something new. “We’re sort of launching ourselves in slightly less well-trod terrain, story-wise,” he said.

Mr. Bochco said he has never been a war-movie buff, and he insisted that Over There wasn’t inspired by other war dramas, even if it used their visual cues. Specifically, he aimed to deflect political readings of the program.

“I don’t see Over There as either a World War II-style drama or a Vietnam-style drama,” he wrote. “It’s its own piece, reflective more of the human drama of men and women in harm’s way, than it is a political piece making value judgments about the righteousness of this conflict. The fact that some may see it one way and others another way is, to my way of thinking, illustrative of the fact that the show is aggressively non-political in its tone.”

Mr. Gerolmo felt that by focusing exclusively on the moral quandaries of soldiers, they would avoid the political undercurrents altogether.

“What’s changed since Vietnam, it seems to me, is even people who are against the war seem to have substantial sympathy for the people who are fighting it,” he said. “That’s really a big change from Vietnam …. [I]f you’re interested in these soldiers and you can work up some sympathy for their stories, then regardless of how you feel about American policy, which is formulated by altogether different people than the people we’re writing about, you can watch this show.”

John Landgraf, who became president of the FX Channel in early 2004, said that it is possible to fictionalize the ongoing war in part because the press has already had a chance to give its take.

“I think there’s an accelerating pace with which we sort of metabolize and contextualize things,” he said. “Journalists, I think, are the first line of contextualizing historical events. But journalists have had a couple of years now. I really honestly think it’s time for the next wave, which are the writers and artists.”

In the same breath, Mr. Landgraf said making things ultra-realistic was the only way to avoid casting political judgment. “Making it not real is in some way editorializing, is it not?” he said. “Isn’t the whole point of making a show that is dramatically honest and fair as possible to make it as real as possible? Making it unreal is hedging your bets.”

Hired in 2004, Mr. Landgraf has been tasked with continuing the transition of the FX Channel from a backwater for M*A*S*H reruns into a place for dense, realistic, quasi-HBO dramas about cops, firemen and soldiers ( The Shield, Rescue Me, Over There, respectively). The network has another hit in Nip/Tuck, about the lives of Los Angeles-based plastic surgeons.

Mr. Bochco, an avid watcher of CNN, said the creators didn’t draw directly on cable news coverage in conceiving the show. But the pilot has entire scenes that are largely familiar from TV news reportage. One is a night sequence shot entirely in green-hued night-vision, reminiscent of the first Special Forces raid; another is shot entirely in orange, presumably during the sandstorm that struck while U.S. troops approached Baghdad in 2003.

“As a director, you want to use the jiggly cameras and flat light that the TV guys use,” said Mr. Gerolmo. “So it looks real, so it looks to Americans like the footage they’ve seen of Iraq. Other than that, the raw TV news doesn’t have the time to do anything in depth and we’re doing something else.”

What defines the show against depictions of war in past TV shows-and the last fictional TV show about war appeared in 13 years, when ABC broadcast China Beach-is that characters who suffer horrible injuries will continue their broken lives in subsequent episodes.

Mr. Gerolmo recalled a 1962 TV series called Combat!, directed by Robert Altman, in which injured characters simply disappeared.

“If you got hurt in Combat!, you were out of the show,” said Mr. Gerolmo. “And this is a show about the war and the human consequences of the war on people involved directly and people tangentially involved. And once you do that, you’re doing a different kind of show on television, because they don’t have that.”

Mr. Gerolmo predicted that the show’s ratio of scenes set at home versus scenes set in combat in Iraq would eventually amount to about 50-50.

For Saving Private Ryan, Mr. Spielberg has said he injected his own conscience about war through the character of Corporal Upham, the intellectual, knock-kneed typist too afraid to kill the enemy until the very end. In Over There, a version of that character, nicknamed “Dim,” waxes poetic on the consequences of war on man’s soul.

“We’re savages,” he says. “We’re thrilled to kill each other. We’re monsters. And war is what unmasks us.”

Then he concludes: “But there’s a kind of honor in it, too. A kind of grace. I guess if I’m a monster it’s my privilege to be one.”

But just as the show seems to fall on the side of American honor in war, it veers back to a more severe reality, especially with the bloody conclusion to the pilot, which The Observer agreed not to disclose.

Mr. Gerolmo said directing the Iraq war drama on sets in Southern California had affected his views on war. But it was also exciting to make war pictures.

“It made me feel horrible about the idea of war,” he said, but “at the same time, directing shows about war is really fun. When nobody gets hurt-that’s exciting. It’s really a charge. It’s really an adolescent fun-filled day to blow up a truck. Blowing up stuff when nobody gets hurts, that’s exciting.”

As for real-life war, he added: “It’s so sad that we end up using this as a tool of foreign policy. It seems like the last choice to me.”