Video: Bochco takes on Iraq

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updated 7/29/2005 10:14:41 AM ET 2005-07-29T14:14:41

Producer Stephen Bochco, the brains behind such hits as "NYPD Blue" and "Hill Street Blues", has put a new spin on soldiers in action. "Over There," a hard-hitting new show on FX, follows the exploits of a fictional Army platoon.  With politics aside, the show explores the dueling forces of carnage and courage while at war.  

Bochco joined 'Hardball' host Chris Matthews to discuss how the series reflects the complexities that U.S. soldiers currently face in Iraq.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, 'HARDBALL' HOST: Producer Steven Bochco says he has put politics on the back burner and instead sticks to the personal stories of soldiers in Iraq and their families back home.  Steven joins us now from Los Angeles this evening.... How do you tell a story about a war without saying who the good guys are? 

STEVEN BOCHCO, PRODUCER, “OVER THERE”: Our stories really center around our platoon of soldiers, the men and women in our little combat unit, as well as the stories involving their husbands and wives and mothers and fathers left behind at home who are worried sick about their welfare. 

And, for us, it is not so much about good guys, bad guys.  It is about fighting men and women over there to do a job, and how they deal with the stresses of the environment. 

MATTHEWS: I guess police stories involve the ongoing human nature of big-city life.  There is crime, and there are police and there are bad guys.  And the war never ends.  Is that the sense of the Iraq war as you tell it, that this is just an ongoing struggle? 

BOCHCO: We drop our combat unit into the middle of it.  And they are there.  I don't think they think of it in terms of, how long are we going to be here or when is this war going to be over?  For them, I think it is a day-to-day survival issue. 

MATTHEWS: Who are the bad guys?  Are they nationalist Iraqis?  Are they Baathists?  Are they outside Islamists who came into the country to fight us?  How do you define the enemy in your series? 

BOCHCO: We are defining the enemy as those individuals who are trying to kill us, who are shooting at us.  And we don't put names on them or labels on them.  They are just trying to hurt us, and they are the bad guys. 

MATTHEWS: When you develop your plot-lines, do they come from the dispatches you are getting from the front? 

BOCHCO: Well, they don't.  They don't come from the dispatches that we get from the front.  Obviously, we do a great deal of reading.  We are speaking to soldiers.  We have technical input on the set from Marines who have done tours in Iraq.  And we are storytellers.  And, you know, we just assimilate all that raw information that we get and we try to craft good, compelling stories out of it. 

MATTHEWS: You know, we had a fellow in the audience who had been a medic in Vietnam.  He said the toughest thing about fighting a war, like you're showing right here with this great footage from your show, is rules of engagement.  I mean, when you don't know who your enemy is and you have got to start firing fast to save your life, you sometimes hit the wrong people.  You hit the good people, the accidental casualties of war. 

How do you deal with that issue in this war, spotting the enemy and knowing when to shoot? 

BOCHCO: Well, we do deal. We have several early episodes where our guys are really faced with the dilemma of trying to verify and identify whether individuals that we're targeting are really bad guys or innocent civilians. And that is one of the real problems that these soldiers are facing every day. Tragically, sometimes errors are made. 

MATTHEWS: You know, we are looking at war footage. You and I have grown up with war movies where the language is pretty rough, because that is how people talk in war. You know, it is life and death. It's also rough language, like you occasionally hear in television behind the scenes. How are you dealing with censorship and things like that, getting it realistic enough to be gritty, but not crossing the line? 

BOCHCO: Well, on FX, which is a cable network, we have significantly looser standards and practice issues than we would have on broadcast television. And, consequently, our ability to access language that is approximate to the kinds of things you would hear in a war zone are pretty accurate, as well as our ability to depict a certain level of graphic violence that we certainly would not be able to access in broadcast television. 

MATTHEWS: [With director Steven] Spielberg, in “Saving Private Ryan,” the most dramatic footage of the whole movie is when they are hitting Omaha Beach in Normandy, and the guys are using the kind of language you would hear at a football game in the huddle or whatever. It is worse than that. And yet, some people found that offensive, even though they didn't seem to mind the bloodshed too much. 

BOCHCO: It is real language, and it is the way these guys talk. I think, when people are shooting at you, the last thing in the world that you are concerned about is whether the words you are using are going to be offensive to somebody. 

MATTHEWS: Did you have to pay rights to George M. Cohan for this title or what? 

BOCHCO: No. Chris Gerolmo, who co-created the show with me, actually wrote the song that is at the end of the show, which becomes our main title theme, several years ago. And he called it “Over There.” And we just used it. It is a really lovely song. He did a wonderful job performing it.

MATTHEWS: So, you can't patent a title, right? Anybody can call a song “Over There”? 

BOCHCO: No, that is right.

MATTHEWS: I am thinking of the great writer George M. Cohan writing about World War I.  You know, growing up with World War II movies, I think World War II movies, war movies of that particular era, are the most popular movies ever made.  There are more World War II movies I think than any other topic. You know, platoons had pretty boy in it. And they had Brooklyn. You know, they always had these classic ethnic characters in these World War II dramas, because they were so diverse, because everybody fought in World War II. 

How do you put together a platoon in an all-volunteer Army? How do you show that army as being different than the citizens‘ armies that fought in wars past, when you had the draft? 

BOCHCO: Well, first of all, you know, we have women, who, while not fulfilling, strictly speaking, combat roles, are certainly at combat risk.

The women are attached to these combat units. So, we obviously have women in uniform. We just chose to have an interesting and diverse group of young men from various ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, because it just makes for more interesting and realistic storytelling.

MATTHEWS: But the war in Iraq has no draftees. That separates it from Vietnam and all the wars before, right? 

BOCHCO: Yes, it does. And I think, to a certain extent, that is one of the reasons that perhaps this war is not quite on the radar for a lot of people in the way that previous wars have been. 

MATTHEWS: Because we don't have a cousin in the war or a brother?

BOCHCO: Well...

MATTHEWS: Most people.

BOCHCO: Well, most of us don't. Most — that is true. 

MATTHEWS: I just think that you are getting to something really important about this war and its differential from even as recently as the Vietnam War.

And that is that everybody my age, our age, was eligible to be drafted. And so, if you didn‘t get called, someone in your class did. Somebody got killed in your class, no matter what college you went to, no matter where you went or how you were brought up, upper middle class, middle class, whatever, working class, poor guys. We all had the same experience in war. 

But I guess that is your challenge, as you just said, to bring to the people who aren't fighting the war what it is like. 

BOCHCO: Yes. That is our challenge.

And we think we‘re doing a very good job of it. And one of the lessons I think all of us learned from Vietnam is to not kill the messenger, in effect.  When the soldiers came home from Vietnam, so many of them just took a hell of a beating from the folks at home. I think what all of us have learned is that, whatever one's point of view about the war may be, that these young men and women who are putting their lives on the line in combat deserve to be honored. 

MATTHEWS:  I'll ditto that. 

Have you been able to handle this new kind of warfare, where it's not so much you're being shot at by an enemy, but you're getting killed by an explosive device set along a highway? 

BOCHCO: In our pilot episode, that becomes a significant event in the show itself. 

And, clearly, you know, that is one of the great risks in this war. Everyone there is at risk.  There is no such thing as the front and then, you know, behind the lines. If you are in uniform and you are in Iraq -- man, woman -- you are at risk from just those kinds of random events. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, Steven Bochco, congratulations. What a gutsy thing, to talk about a war that is still being fought.

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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