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TV Series Review

They came in peace. Really.

Not everyone in Sadr City, Iraq, believed that in the spring of 2004. Yes, the Americans had helped free the country from Saddam Hussein's tyrany. He'd been gone for almost a year by then, yet the American army was still here—rumbling through the streets in its armored vehicles, rousting civilians and generally disrupting any possibility of anything returning to normal. To some Iraqis, these American liberators looked more like conquerors—oppressors here to take their oil, insult their religion and rob them of their newfound independence.

But for Lt. Col. Gary Volesky, there's no question about what he's there to do, no ambiguity. He and his men are there to keep the peace. To rebuild this little section of Iraq. To help the people there stand on their own and to leave behind a better place than when they arrived.

Sure, not everyone's happy with the work they're doing here. Sometimes, imams rail against the Americans in their Friday sermons. But to Volesky's way of thinking, the only way to combat that is by making Sadr City more livable, day after day after day.

"All we can do is lead by example," he tells one of his troops. "Every time we do something good here, it's a beat of that drum. … People are going to see amazing things from us here."

And so Volesky still believed April 4, 2004—Palm Sunday back in the states. In Sadr City, Iraq, the date came to be known by another name: Black Sunday.

Shattered Peace

National Geographic's ambitious new miniseries is already spoiled: We know what happened. The Long Road Home is based on the bestselling book by ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz, and it chronicles in sometimes brutal detail the events in Sadr City on and around April 4. Eight Americans died that day (dozens more were injured), when a previously peaceful city erupted in violence. Countless Iraqis died April 4, too, and it was only the beginning. The fight around the region lasted, in some respects, for years afterward.

But the series does something that no news broadcast or Twitter update can effectively do: It gives us a view from the ground, and from home, of some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable.

Ultimately, Volesky's the guy in charge. A man of deep faith, he plotted the (apparently) unsuccessful efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people there. Now he must lead a battle against a rebellion he never suspected was brewing—and save as many lives as he can.

But Volesky's not the star of the show. Every episode is told, more or less, from the perspective of one of the men or women involved in the effort: from Lt. Shane Aguero, who led his small unit into the initial ambush; to Jassim Al-Lani, the Iraqi translator who may, or may not, be working with the enemy. Each character we see—most or all of whom appear to have a real-life counterpart—feels real and fully fleshed out for us.

Which makes it all the harder when that flesh begins to bleed.

'There's No Glory out There … Just Death and Rot'

The Long Road Home has already earned a great deal of praise, in part for its realism. It's been called "brutal," "authentic" and "unflinching." But even as secular reviewers suggest that all that realism helps make this series a must-see television event, it paradoxically makes it that much harder to watch, too.

Listen, the television landscape has no shortage of blood. We've seen it shed by the bucketful in Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, and by the ludicrous vatful in American Horror Story.

But however involved we may become in those shows' characters, and however realistic the directors try to make the carnage look, we know that what we're watching is fiction.

The Long Road Home, while obviously a dramatization, looks and feels inherently different. Perhaps it's because we know that the action we see on screen was based on real events, and that the people we watch die represent real individuals. Perhaps it's because Nat Geo takes special care to introduce us to these characters—to their lives and their families and their friends on the front lines, who cry and grieve and rage.

And yet for as dear as life feels, it's often treated cavalierly in Sadr City. When a young soldier kills his first man, a comrade reminds him that in Iraq, life is cheap. He recalls seeing a dead man in a car one day, "flies crawling out of his eyeballs and nostrils. Not one person cared enough to stop."

The language is also enough to stop many would-be viewers, too. Again, Nat Geo is aiming for realism here, and the multitude of profanities are likely about what we'd hear in the barracks and the battlefield. But that doesn't make them any easier to hear.

But for all those real negatives, The Long Road Home offers a more rewarding sort of realism, too. These soldiers aren't perfect. Many are deeply flawed. And yet we see in them a certain purpose and idealism that, I think, would ring true for many a serviceman and woman watching. The show also gives us a glimpse of something even more rare: an indication how important faith is to many of our characters. I don't know if I've seen more sincere prayers in any show as I saw in The Long Road Home's first two hours.

National Geographic's miniseries can be messy, brutal and grim. But for some viewers, it may offer value in the messy truths it gives.

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Episode Reviews

The Long Road Home: Nov. 7, 2017 "Black Sunday/The Eye of the Storm"



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E.J. Bonilla as Lt. Shane Aguero; Jon Beavers as Sgt. Eric Bourquin; Michael Kelly as Lt. Col. Gary Volesky; Jason Ritter as Capt. Troy Denomy; Kate Bosworth as Gina Denomy; Sarah Wayne Callies as LeAnn Volesky; Franklin Silverio as SPC Acevedo; Joshua Brennan as Sgt. Jackson; Jorge Diaz as Specialist Israel Garza; Joey Luthman as Specialist Jonathan Riddell; Jeremy Sisto as Sgt Robert Miltenberger; Darius Homayoun as Jassim Al-Lani




National Geographic


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On Video

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Paul Asay

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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