Paul Schiraldi, HBO
Stark Sands, left, and Alexander Skarsgard in "Generation Kill"

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — The first hour of HBO's "Generation Kill" is sheer chaos. You won't be able to figure out who all the characters are and what's going on. You won't even be able to understand a lot of what's being said because it's military jargon that's never explained.

That confusion is completely intentional. It's part of telling this story of a group of Marines who were the tip of the spear in the invasion of Iraq — a compelling adaptation of Evan Wright's best-selling book about the Marines 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, with whom the Rolling Stone reporter was embedded.

And out of the confusion of the first hour (Sunday, 10 p.m., HBO) emerges an amazing, seven-hour miniseries that's unflinching in its portrayal of young men who go from boredom to extreme peril as they travel from Kuwait to Baghdad, often behind enemy lines.

"We make you work, but at the end, there's more of a payoff than doing TV the old way," said David Simon, who knows a lot about delivering challenging TV that pays off for viewers — he was one of the creators/writers/executive producers of HBO's "The Wire."

"I actually give viewers and readers a great deal of credit that if they want to enter a world, they will be willing to tolerate a certain amount of confusion as long as some core values and some core elements of the story are propelled forward," Simon said.

If it's in fits and starts, well, so was the war itself. This is not an effort to retell the first 40 days from the perspective of those in command of the American forces. "Generation Kill" looks at it from the perspective of a relatively small group of men on the front lines.

"I had a very myopic view of what was going on," said Eric Kocher, one of the Marines portrayed in the miniseries. "I mean, even after reading Evan's book, it kind of brought light to a lot of things that I didn't see. I got my five-man team. That's my little world. That's everything I saw."

"The war is a backdrop to the focus on relationships between Marines in this movie," said Wright, who's a writer/producer/consultant on the adaptation of his book.

Unlike a lot of journalists who were embedded sort of at the tail end of the various combat forces, Wright was up front with the Marines on reconnaissance. Like the troops, he had no idea what was going to happen when he arrived in Iraq.

"I wasn't sure there was going to be a shooting war," he said. "When I got into that Humvee, even as we set off across the border, I didn't know if we would ever encounter anything."

But he knew he had a story just by observing the Marines interact with each other.

"I thought even if there's no shooting, I have a really great story here because these guys are hilarious, the way they interact," he said. "And it's really fascinating how this family unit works. ... And that was a really great dynamic just to write about.

"And then, of course, we started getting shot at."

The miniseries certainly feels real to someone who wasn't there.

"None of us wanted the reference points for the actors or anybody working on this to be other war movies. We wanted their reference points to be the reality of the war that was fought by Eric Kocher and Jeff Carisalez and the other guys in my book," Wright said. "And that's a tough thing, because on the set, few of the actors had any military experience, let alone war experience. And most of us, our ideas of war are shaped by movies, and movies often get things wrong. And we wanted this one to be focused on the reality that I observed during the invasion."

When "Generation Kill" was screened for several hundred Marines at Camp Pendleton, according to Kocher, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. "The dialogue is excellent. It hits exactly the way Marines talk, and then the atmosphere is visually what you see, what you hear in the background. It hits Iraq. And that's the biggest comment everyone's been telling me, especially the Marine community."

(Getting it right, of course, means there is plenty of R-rated language and violence in the miniseries.)

"That audience totally got exactly what David and (executive producer) Ed (Burns) and I were all doing on this project," Wright said. "They laughed at all the right jokes and they understood the gravity of scenes.

"For me, personally, having started down this road a few years ago, it was the most gratifying moment of the whole production to see these guys laughing and nodding their heads with recognition."

E-mail: [email protected]