The closing minutes of the opening episode of “The Long Road Home” is a harrowing piece of television. Built up over the course of a half hour of tearful goodbyes, skeptical glances, and tiny rifts in neighborhood peace, a platoon of soldiers patrolling Sadr City in Baghdad comes under fire from all sides. An afternoon convoy of tanks rolling through the streets of Iraq soon becomes a bloodbath as a tense, uneasy peace gives way to chaos.
While there are seven additional installments of the Nat Geo miniseries based on Martha Raddatz’s 2007 book, that premiere is an effective representative of the show as a whole, preamble and all. Immersive in scenes of combat, disorienting when it hops between its myriad backstories, and clunky in its attempts at small talk, “The Long Road Home” rises and falls in many of the same ways that on-screen war stories do. A mostly conventional approach to a story framed around heroism and faith, it’s a show that does the most justice to its real-life inspiration when it resists its own impulses to manufacture drama where plenty already exists.
“The Long Road Home” draws its story from “Black Sunday,” the name given to the ambush that caught members of the First Cavalry Division in Sadr City and led to a days-long siege with casualties inside the unit and beyond. Each of the series’ eight episodes tracks a soldier involved in the initial attack or the recovery effort to bring their brothers back to safety, from Company leader Captain Troy Denomy (Jason Ritter) to Lieutenant Shane Aguero (E.J. Bonilla) to Lieutenant Colonel Gary Volesky (Michael Kelly), the highest-ranking featured soldier.
Telling the tale of the attack and rescue, series creator Mikko Alanne and director Phil Abraham bring a literal number of angles to the story. Not only does “The Long Road Home” adopt the perspective of soldier and civilian alike, it establishes a storytelling order for the sequences when bullets rip through armored tanks and RPGs destroy building supports. There’s a true attention to detail, whether it’s the language and urgency of radio calls or the way that spent gunner shells slide off the tank hood when the vehicle comes to a screeching halt.
The tension from the events being depicted lends them an air of authenticity, which unfortunately renders much of the surrounding dialogue-heavy scenes as a stilted substitute. Conversations about what it means to be a soldier and the nature of the war they’re fighting are definitely far from fiction: It would be impossible to expect that between-combat small talk wouldn’t eventually touch on those topics. But as presented here, these talks often feel like they’re there to orient the audience’s allegiances and to hammer home thematic ideas, rather than be the lived-in chatter from before, during, and after a crisis.
National Geographic/Jeremy Benning
Many war stories confuse a unified platoon of soldiers with the need for a unified style of performance. One of the strengths of “The Long Road Home” is that it not only shows the diversity of backgrounds and age groups and cultural perspectives of the people involved in this conflict, it allows its actors to approach each of their roles as individuals and not cogs in a military wheel.
A handful of the soldiers seem closer to the traditional mold of TV/film grunts. But Bonilla and Ritter both project a much less boisterous, showy form of leadership. There’s urgency in their orders and directions, and they still bring a sense of vulnerability that hero-centric stories rarely let in. Michael Kelly brings an ideal blend of archetype and the unexpected to depicting Voresky’s calm, direct demeanor, easing into the no-nonsense charges and accountability without having to resort to brash drill-sergeant theatrics.
Hopping between the backstories of individual soldiers often means digging back into his life before arriving in Iraq. This technique might work on print in Raddatz’s book, but the constant back-and-forth between timelines and continents breaks much of the immediacy of the danger they face. When the show shifts to the reactions back stateside, it reverts to more well-worn conventions. Stacked with a not-insignificant roster of performers among those soldiers leave home, Sarah Wayne Callies, Kate Bosworth, Katie Paxton, and others are left with the usual breathless worried wife stock characters that so many other war stories have given their actresses. The glimmer of family moments that a handful of the soldiers have before leaving Schantz hint at a richness of things happening back home, but the show largely sets that aside in favor of stoking the drama of what’s happening as the soldiers are under siege.
For much of the early half of the series, the forces in Sadr City attacking these military transports are largely a faceless enemy. Aside from a few incidents where decoy figures put snipers on uneasy footing before one of them takes a shot, there’s a great sense of anonymity to the antagonists here that prevents a full view of the incident. Even when the show turns its attention to Jassim, one of the platoon’s interpreters, there aren’t many surprises in how these mixed allegiances are presented. (There’s even a throng of protesters chanting “Death to America” thrown in for good measure.)
While the show does draw a tremendous amount of drama from the elemental parts of this chapter of events, there are too many times when “The Long Road Home” doesn’t trust the inherent power of the story it’s telling. It’s not enough that the show presents a narrative where sides are being drawn, but the characters have to ask each other whose side they’re on. When a post-nightfall scene borrows visual language from zombie fare, one of the soldiers exclaims, “It’s like ‘Night of the Living Dead’ out there!” Again, these feel like mile markers not in providing authenticity to an on-screen tale of survival, but in making sure the audience is comfortably situated within a pre-existing framework.
So the best parts of “The Long Road Home” happen when these characters don’t fit into neat expectations from military-themed entertainment. Aguero, when calling in his report of the opening “Black Sunday” salvo, delivers it with the urgency of someone doing his job, not as someone intent on convincing the audience his actions will be worthy of dramatizing someday. The most convincing form of heroism is one that presents itself without fanfare.
“The Long Road Home” airs Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. ET on Nat Geo.