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‘The Long Road Home’ review: Excellent, unflinching Iraq war drama

Jason Ritter portrays Capt. Troy Denomy in "The

Jason Ritter portrays Capt. Troy Denomy in "The Long Road Home." Credit: National Geographic / Van Redin

THE SERIES “The Long Road Home”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel

WHAT IT’S ABOUT On April 4, 2004, a 1st Cavalry Division patrol commanded by Lt. Shane Aguero (E.J. Bonilla) makes its way through the streets of Sadr City, Iraq — a Shia neighborhood of Baghdad — when ambushed by Mahdi Army militiamen. In the ensuing battle, later dubbed Black Sunday, U.S. forces under the command of Lt. Col. Gary Volesky (Michael Kelly) — including Capt. Troy Denomy (Jason Ritter) of Charlie Company — go in to rescue them. Meanwhile, back home at Fort Hood, Texas, their wives, Leann Volesky (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Gina Denomy (Kate Bosworth), hear rumors of an engagement in Sadr City. This eight-parter is based on Martha Raddatz’s acclaimed 2007 book.

MY SAY “The long road home” is a figure of speech except in “The Long Road Home.” Here it’s literal. There are roads leading to Sadr City, through Sadr City, and around Sadr City. They aren’t just long, either. Some are endless, winding around and around, like patterns in some devilishly ingenious maze. There are no people on the roads. They are cowering inside the pocked buildings. Or dead: In a later episode, soldiers come upon two young children, draped over a sofa, their eyes still open.  

Choked with dust, or smoke, or debris, the Ranger Humvees work their way down these roads until they can make their way no farther. Heads pop up over building parapets, an AK-47 is lifted, fired. The mounted M2 .50-caliber on the Humvee returns fire. The bullets shred those parapets, and whoever lurks behind them. Still the AK-47s appear. The gunner is hit, slumps, then collapses into the vehicle, blood covering his body, filling his lungs. To scream is impossible. He will die shortly.

 Like all fine films about war, “The Long Road Home” doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time talking about the cost of war. This is the cost of war. People die brutally, on both sides. “I just killed three generations of one family,” says one soldier in bitter disbelief, after shooting a boy, then the boy’s father, and then that father’s father, each of whom had picked up the same gun in succession.

“The Long Road Home” is also preoccupied with the human details. What exactly is a young platoon lieutenant — Aguero, in one instance — supposed to say over the body of his lifeless gunner? Over a five-minute scene, he prays through muffled sobs, but you are left to wonder whether this prayer is for the dead gunner, Sgt. Eddie Chen (Kenny Leu), or for himself.

Five episodes — including Tuesday’s two-part launch — were directed by Phil Abraham, who brings the same scrupulous focus on character that he did to “Mad Men” over so many episodes. There’s no bravado in these soldiers. They are confused, scared, angry, suspicious, miserable and occasionally desperate. As soldiers, their bravery under fire is incontestable but also perhaps reflexive: This was supposed to be a “peace mission,” not a hot war, after all.

But who they are as people emerges through the chaos and horror. At his core, Aguero is fundamentally decent. Sgt. Eric Bourquin (Jon Beavers) is smart, tough, also a destabilizing presence. Sgt. Robert Miltenberger (Jeremy Sisto) is a dour fatalist and realist. He knows where the road leads and perhaps where it ends, too.

“The Long Road” can be tough to watch — I saw the first three episodes — but it does seem like it’s essential to.

BOTTOM LINE Excellent and unflinching.

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