How exactly do you televise the war on terror and the United States fight against violent extremism? That’s what the new series Chain of Command is attempting.
The eight-part National Geographic Channel documentary reality series (Mondays at 9 p.m.) is narrated by Captain America star Chris Evans, but the stars here are the people of the U.S. military, from those in the Pentagon to those on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Its ambitious goal is to use “unprecedented access to the Pentagon and the Department of Defense for what will be the most comprehensive military program ever produced,” according to what National Geographic Global Networks CEO Courteney Monroe told TV critics last summer.
The executive producer and showrunner of the series Scott Boggins, who was also the showrunner of the first season of Showtime’s The Circus, which went behind-the-scenes in near real time of the 2016 election.
When I interviewed him last August, when the show was still in production, he told me that he thinks the 2016 Circus is “a pretty good historical record” of the campaign, and hopes to create a similar record here about how “extremism affects all of us, and to better understand extremism, and what it’s about, and how we’re fighting it around the world.”
To illustrate that, Chain of Command embedded with 300 Marines in Afghanistan and was in the room while airstrikes are ordered in Mosul, but also filmed in places ranging from Colombia to West Africa.
“The chain has hundreds of links; it will be virtually impossible for us to cover and try to understand each,” Boggins said. “What we do, we see the strategic and we see it go down to the operation level, which is the commanders—the four-star generals, the three-star generals,” he said. “From there, we embed ourselves with the tactical.”
Specifically, the series will illustrate the idea of “advise and assist.” “We hear that term a lot with the military,” he said, “but to actually see it in the way we were able to film it in Mosul for 12 weeks—you understand definitively what ‘advise and assist’ is, you understand the connection and the relationship and partnership the U.S. military has with the Iraqi Army.”
From The Circus, Boggins said he learned “you can’t predict anything at all,” he said, though with season one of that show and with Chain of Command, producers try “to make your own luck,” which “is born out of as much preparation as you can do.”
Television in partnership with the Department of Defense
Filming began in late 2016, and although the chain of command starts with the president of the United States, the change from Obama to Trump “hasn’t affected the series one bit, the transition of power,” Boggins said. “We’ve been working with the Department of Defense on this project. This is not a political show one bit.”
The goal is to give viewers the Department of Defense’s perspective—to “basically see it through their eyes,” Boggins said.
As you can see in the above clip of the show’s first two and a half minutes, the show filmed actual conversations and operations as they happened, though a few images and details are blurred out. “We’re not here to divulge national secrets,” he said. “But they take us to the very limit of where we can go, and going that far provides us with an incredible amount of story to tell.”
That story included “being in someone’s home when they’re saying goodbye to their three kids under five, and both mom and dad are going to Afghanistan.”
Boggins said film crews were with that family because “we wanted to try to understand commitment, we wanted to understand sacrifice, and thankfully they agreed to let us they do it. They kept telling us: We’re not special. This happens all the time.”
“What we would say to them,” he added, “is, You are special—you really are.”