The true story of a US Army unit ambushed in Iraq is dramatised in National Geographic limited series The Long Road Home. Showrunner Mikko Alanne discusses adapting Martha Raddatz’s non-fiction novel and filming at the base where the real soldiers were stationed.
When The Long Road Home debuts on National Geographic, it will be the end of Mikko Alanne’s nine-year journey to bring the story of Black Sunday to the screen. During that time, the project evolved from a three-hour movie to an eight-hour limited series that will air in 171 countries around the world and in 45 languages.
The military drama recalls the events that began on April 4, 2004, when members of the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division were ambushed in Sadr City, Baghdad. Based on Martha Raddatz’s non-fiction account, it crosses between the soldiers fighting for their lives and their families waiting at home for news of their loved ones and fearing the worst.
It was executive producer Mike Medavoy who first sent Alanne the book, which the latter describes as “one of the most incredible, astonishing reports” he has ever read. He was particularly drawn to the equal weight given to the soldiers’ struggle in Baghdad and the plight of the families left behind at Fort Hood military base in Texas.
“It also took place a month after President Bush declared ‘mission accomplished,’ so there was a real sense that this was going to be a peacekeeping mission,” creator and showrunner Alanne explains of the real-life situation.
“Families are always anxious when [loved ones are] deployed to a war zone, but Sadr City had been virtually without incident for the first year of the occupation so was unofficially known as the safest place in Iraq. Then suddenly CNN breaks the story [of the ambush] before the army even has a chance to notify anyone on base, and it throws everyone’s life into chaos. I felt for the first time I really understood what the experience is like for the American military family, and that’s what I wanted to convey.”
Having initially pitched the story as a movie, Alanne spent time interviewing the real people involved. But once Nat Geo came on board, he found he was able to tell a far richer and more detailed story than he ever could have told on the big screen. The series follows events in real time in Iraq and on the home front, with each episode adopting the perspective of a particular soldier.
That’s not the only storytelling flourish in The Long Road Home, however, which attempts to put a wedge between itself and the slew of other military series – CBS’s SEAL Team, NBC’s The Brave and The CW’s Valor – on US television this autumn by also jumping backwards and forwards in time.
The show shifts to moments before the soldiers were deployed, one soldier’s previous tour of Kosovo and the life of the unit’s Iraqi interpreter during the first year of the US occupation, in an episode that is partly filmed in Arabic. “So even as we tell the story in real time, it has a unique structure that will illuminate what the experience is like [in a way] that no one has attempted to do before, certainly for television,” Alanne says.
The emergence of limited series in US TV by 2015 – when Nat Geo put the show into development – certainly helped to land a deal for The Long Road Home, while the showrunner believed at that time, four years after the official end of the Iraq War, the US would be ready to re-examine it. To this end, he says the series is a microcosm of the entire conflict.
“All the essential lessons, tragedy and hope are in this story of this one day,” he explains. “This day also marks the beginning of the insurgency in Southern Iraq from which comes the collapse of the Iraqi state and the birth of ISIS. It also sparked the beginning of the modern anti-war movement in America, so it was a unique event – something that really became evident more in retrospect.”
Adapting Raddatz’s book for TV, Alanne’s first challenge was to condense the 60 characters that readers get to know. The early stages of scriptwriting then centred on finding natural break points for each episode, while trying to find a complementary way to pass back and forth between scenes set in Iraq and the US without disrupting the story. But the biggest challenge came when he had to find themes to pull each episode together.
“In looking at what each of these soldiers struggled with and what defined their experience as a soldier, I wanted that to be the frame for that hour,” he says about plotting the series, which is distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution. One episode focuses on staff sergeant Robert Miltenberger (played by Jeremy Sisto), who had a very strong premonition he was going to die in battle.
“So when gunfire started hitting the back of his truck, he just calmly moved and gave aid to his soldiers, saved the lives of three guys and was never touched by a bullet once, even though he was certain he was going to die. So if his hour is thematically about fate, how is that same idea reflected in other characters? That was one of the organising principles I started to think about.”
Another episode focuses on stranded platoon leader Shane Aguero (EJ Bonilla), who stood out to Alanne due to his love of Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars. “It’s just a completely different kind of portrait to what you think a young lieutenant looks like, so I always knew I wanted his point of view,” the showrunner says. “We also feature lieutenant colonel Garry Volesky (Michael Kelly), the battalion commander who led the rescue effort, and captain Troy Denomy (Jason Ritter, pictured top), who physically led the first rescue into the city, so all of these people would give us points of view from different command levels.”
Alanne says it was always his dream to be able to film the ‘home front’ scenes in Fort Hood – featuring Kate Bosworth as Denomy’s wife Gina and Sarah Wayne Callies as Volesky’s wife LeAnn – to ensure the fact-based drama was as authentic as possible. As it transpired, the entire series was shot in Fort Hood, with the production taking over one of the training sites at the military base to turn it into Sadr City.
More than 80 buildings were constructed and 35 redesigned to create the Baghdad district’s main streets, including the alley where the army unit is pinned down by insurgents. Videos and photographs taken by Raddatz and soldiers at the time were used to recreate the location, while each episode also has up to 200 visual effects to create views beyond street level.
“We were filming on the 13th anniversary [of the real events] earlier this year and, as fate had it, we were filming the goodbye scene at Cooper Field [where families say goodbye to departing soldiers],” Alanne recalls. “We invited a lot of veterans to come to filming and see the set, and for both cast and crew it was one of the most meaningful things to have the real people there, many of whom got to meet the actors portraying them. There was something poetic about the fact everyone was anxious to see filming but no one had really wanted to see battles recreated where their sons or husbands were hurt or killed.
“One of the most affecting things for me was when I came to Austin and the costume department had been empty for several weeks. Once I came back it was full of uniforms from 2004, which don’t exist anymore, so we had to make them. I remember it really struck you to see all the characters names [on the uniforms] and it was just a reminder that real people wore these uniforms. For the families seeing hundreds of soldiers in the field and having their farewell ceremony recreated, I can understand why it would feel surreal. It felt surreal to me.”
With a background as a documentary and fact-based filmmaker (The 33, Voice of Dissent), it’s no surprise Alanne brought some of those techniques to The Long Road Home. He sought out interviews with all the principal soldiers and their families as he wanted to keep dramatisation in the series to a bare minimum, save for universal truths about soldiers or elements that would give the audience a deeper understanding of the characters.
“I have always found that nothing is as fascinating to me as real life,” he admits. “I also know that when people watch films and TV shows based on true stories, they assume they’re getting the true story. We can say there’s dramatisation, but the expectation is that what you’re seeing on screen is true. That’s something I take very seriously.”
Because the series will air on National Geographic around the world from November 7, the showrunner was also keen to look at the Iraqi perspective of events, understanding where the insurgency originated from and how ordinary citizens in Sadr felt about the events portrayed.
“We wanted this to be the definitive portrait in this one day of the war,” he concludes. “When you hear the stories the soldiers tell on screen, they feel real because they are real. It’s a unique challenge to stitch together real-life stories and still make them fit a dramatic frame, but that’s always been the most exciting creative challenge for me in telling real stories.”