When politicians and presidents talk about ground troops, sending soldiers into places of conflict, we know that they’re talking about human beings, but it still sounds like one vague mass, not individual people. When we hear about people in the military risking their lives, or being injured, or dying, it can seem remote and distant to those of us who don’t have direct connections.
Combat is abstract. The opposite of that abstraction is Taking Fire, Discovery Channel’s new five-part series (Tuesdays at 10). It’s the most viscerally, brutally real television program imaginable. The network describes it as “war as never seen before,” and that seems like an understatement.
This is not a series filmed with embedded camera crews. Instead, the show has acquired and licensed helmet camera footage from a few soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division—their personal, GoPro record of their experiences.
This is a first-person reality television, where we see exactly what someone else saw in the moment, as it happens. The camera angles may be familiar from first-person shooter games, but this is, of course, nothing close to a game. It is absolutely wrenching and terrifying and brutally real.
Someone is walking, admiring the landscape, and suddenly, from nowhere, gunshots. Bullets from invisible people, the Taliban, hitting sand in front of them. The sound of bullets ricocheting off a bridge that they’re running across. More bullets interrupting life at their base, where people have been shot while eating in the mess hall.
Soldiers firing back. “Fuck you, bitches!” Missiles streaking by and exploding as they kill those who are shooting at the soldiers. “Where’s the fucking bomb drop?” The consequences. “Two casualties? Fuck.”
I don’t know of another unscripted show or documentary that has so perfectly and brutally captured life through someone else’s eyes as this.
Death, in real time, on reality television
In the first episode, two soldiers die.
Taking Fire makes us feel every moment, from the quiet, unassuming moments before they die to the effects on those who survive. That’s its achievement, and that’s what makes it must-watch television.
This is exceptional storytelling, which makes the editing—and the craft—recede to the background, though how the footage is constructed is key to honoring what these people experienced.
The show combines the first-person, helmet-cam footage with narration from several of the men themselves, who are looking back now, several years later. (The events of the series took place in 2011.) But they do more than just narrate: they bring us into the moment.
There’s a moment in episode one involving an IED that I cannot quite put into words, but it surprised and shocked me with its suddenness—which, of course, is what happens. Though I was obviously watching from the safety of my own couch, and through the protective layer of my television, I was fully present in that moment—and terrified for them—because of the way the show comes together.
Taking Fire is not all combat footage in Afghanistan, though. Besides the present-day interviews, there’s some footage of their lives outside of the military. Some of these use their own videos—surfing, for example—but there’s also some conventionally-shot footage of the men in their lives today. It prevents the series from potentially being mistaken for a real-life video game, where there’s nothing but real-time combat, and makes sure the consequences are explicit.
But even with those present-day soundbites and scenes, the series always keeps us in the moment, sometimes minute by minute, during periods of confusion or chaos, and engaging in gun battles or dealing with casualties.
After an IED hits a convoy, Sgt. Ken Shriver says in an interview, “There are a lot of emotions going on at that time, but anger’s the only one I can show. Anger’s acceptable.” We hear him angry and referring to “a bunch of fuckin’ morons” who want him to drive a man with a neck injury across rocky terrain. He refuses, and demands a helicopter, which eventually arrives.
Living this moment alongside him is both terrifying and a privilege, though honestly, I still feel odd about having gratitude for being able to know a fraction of what this life and these horrors were like.
How soldiers’ footage became a Discovery Channel show
The series was pitched by Raw Productions, which Discovery Communications bought in 2014. Their idea took more than a year and a half to be realized because of the difficulties in telling this kind of story. First, there was just acquiring the footage.
Joseph Schneier, Discovery Channel’s vice president of production and development, told me that the footage is “100 percent the property of the soldiers,” and compared it to photographs taken in World War II. (The network employed their “our own military consultants to make sure at no time we are giving away any operation security,” or op-sec. The DOD also reviewed footage, he said, because “the last thing we want to do is hurt any current active duty soldier,” but “there’s nothing that has been flagged.”)
“We really wanted to tell the longest story possible to talk about the changes people go through,” Schneier told me. “There’s been some storytelling in this space, where people are telling the very finite stories: this battle, this one action sequence.”
To find soldiers with footage, producers “had to search for a long time.” Schneier said that “even if someone brings [a video camera] along, if they do in fact record at all times—you have to remember to hit record,” there’s also the issue of drive space and how much they are able to film and store. And then, of course, they had to be willing to license their footage and talk about what happened on camera.
Producers first talked to the soldiers via telephone, and eventually in person. During those interviews, they had stringouts—footage chronologically organized—that they could re-watch. It was, Schneier told me, “important to get back into the heads of these guys when they were there,” though he said some of their more emotional and “stronger responses [came] not from some of the horror moments,” but from other day-to-day life experiences.
The production company “worked with PTSD counselors,” Schneier said, who were either “on set or on call to work through any issues.” Still, their insight was key to making the television show come together.
“The best version of the show would be one that was simply about these guys and what happened to them and what they went through, where you can strip away any of the other parts of the conversation when it comes to war, with the exception of the PTSD parts—we thought that was pretty important.”
In the episodes I’ve seen, there’s very little sense of the overarching mission or orders—just people on the ground doing what they’re told to do. Schneier said that was intentional.
“Let’s just tell their stories,” he said, summarizing the network and production company’s goal with Taking Fire. “Try to tell it through their eyes as much as possible, and try to make everyone understand that, regardless of your feelings about any of this, this is a real thing that happened to these real people.”