While genre franchises such as James Bond and Mission: Impossible evoke public interest in the realm of international security and spy games, these films glamorize the high-profile nature, exclusivity and sexual rewards of agents’ careers, not the significant risks, physical and psychological damage and tenuous diplomatic positions. This is why it is so refreshing to watch Cinemax’s international security series Strike Back, now into its second season on the HBO-group network (Season 1 available now on Blu-ray with Cinemax Select, see below to win a copy).
As season one director Dan Percival explained, this series follows “these guys who do these kinds of things, and they go to the heart of where the problem is and prevent dreadful things coming to our homeland.”
Originally conceived on British television before being taken over by HBO, Strike Back was based on a book by a sergeant in the British Special Forces, under the pseudonym Chris Ryan. Strike Back follows the fictional Section 20 of the British Secret Service (presumably MI6) as they engage in tactical military operations and intelligence gathering in locales reaching from the Middle East to Chechnya and from North to sub-Saharan Africa. The lead actors of Strike Back are Sergeant Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) and former Delta Force operative and American adoptee Sergeant Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton).
FACT: US Navy Seal operatives must undergo at least two years of intensive training before deployment.
While the story plays out in ammunition battles, explosions and thrilling chase scenes, Strike Back’s true beauty is in the cast and crew’s dedication to authenticity, not only of plausible locations, dialogue and weaponry but also in the representation of the firestorm of violence, critical timing and most of all strategy — and despite what you know about TV magic, this comes with a great deal of commitment and preparation.
Winchester explains the process: “We shoot 10 one-hour feature films, and they all have their own story arcs, they all have their own stunt sequences and explosions and all that.”
To play the role of a covert operations specialist, Winchester and cast mate Stapleton spent a month in South Africa, in intensive military training. From six A.M. to ten P.M., the actors transformed their lifestyles and bodies into replicas of those in the field. “We were doing evasive maneuvers, tactical advances, tactical retreats. We’d slap on a bulletproof vest and we’d tactically retreat and advance on targets together with live ammo. It’s really intense. The physical training — we’re doing a lot of running, a lot of lifting weights, we’re doing hand-to-hand combat, mixing stuff like Krav Maga and Systema, which is a Russian technique. I mean, we’re mixing a lot of stuff up.”
While the physicality of it is tremendous, especially once you add in automotive stunts, shooting in unfamiliar territory and learning how to rappel off a moving helicopter (right), the show’s depiction and subsequent developments concerning post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is arguably the strongest aspect of the series. Few of us could handle coming face to face with a gun-wielding child soldier or the excruciatingly difficult task of calling an order in this situation. This, however, is the task soldiers face every day.
FACT: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder affects returning military officers between 10 percent (Gulf War) and 30 percent (Vietnam).
In the first season of Strike Back, Stapleton’s Scott is suffering from PTSD following his dishonorable discharge from the American Delta Force, but it's Winchester’s Stonebridge who embodies the condition due to a series of personal losses, which he attempts to deal with while still on the job (second clip below).
As Winchester explains, “(Stonebridge can) compartmentalize very well. And being a soldier and being a man, I think we’re very naturally good at that, we’re naturally gifted in saying, “This is what’s going on. I’m going to focus on this until it’s done. And then hopefully something else will come along and take the place of that so I don’t have to focus on this stuff.”
But this strategy begins to fall apart, and his disregard for personal safety and protocol begins to jeopardize Section 20 and potentially endanger his team. Regardless of when PTSD episodes occur, the responsibility of completing a mission still falls to the team commander, in this case Major Rachel Dalton (Rhona Mitra), who is forced to decide whether taking down a leading terrorist target is worth sacrificing a damaged Stonebridge.
FACT: The development of each real-life MI6 operative can cost upwards of $8-10 million.
While not sacrificing Stonebridge for a high-value target this may sound ridiculous considering the consistent hammering in action films of the “one life to save thousands” dispute, it’s a reality. Winchester explains, “so when she’s standing there, she may take down a major terrorist player, but she also is losing that much money from her team.” However, he adds, “she’s done this before. It just builds the drama and the suspense of the fact that Michael doesn’t care if he goes, and I don’t think Dalton actually cares either. But for some reason she doesn’t pull the trigger and she doesn’t give the orders.”
Strike Back may be fictitious, but the development of each episode represents a wide series of actual past events, locales and situations that are brought together under creative license by the production staff. As Percival tells us, “every story is modeled on events that we know to have happened or situations that we know exist in the world. And I think that’s one of the benchmarks of Strike Back.
“It’s no longer Iraq or Iran — what was waking the American President and the British Prime Minister up at night was Pakistan.” He adds that while it is still an ally, it is a dangerous one at that: “(Pakistan is an) unstable country sitting on a nuclear arsenal, and with a deeply divided country with a massive amount of Islamic [terrorist] sympathizers within the military, within the judiciary, within the police force, within the intelligence service.”
FACT: 58% of Americans did not hold favorable views towards Islam in 2009.
Another notable aspect of the series is the portrayal of religion and the differing moral views across these regions. Winchester explains, “with religion and this show, and I think in life, it’s such a gray area. And I think what we try and do on Strike Back is really bring that out. We don’t try and say that this religion is right and this religion is wrong. We try and show it as a gray area; it is a personal thing. If you walk in with one expectation or one idea, you’re going to get shot down.” This is further evidenced within the second season through critical scenes concerning the nature of alliances between “men of the book” and a moment of rather heavy-handed symbolism, where a monk utilizes a metal cross hanging on the wall as weapon against the Islamic terrorist who attempts to strangle him.
The series has done a terrific job of creating interweaving storylines between militias, Western-backed tactical groups and terrorist organizations; the coming episodes promise a fascinating exploration of the overlap between governmental pressure (see first clip above) and multinational corporations working in developing or insecure nations. Look no further for inspiration than the ridiculously underrated docudrama The Constant Gardener, which chronicled companies conducting clinical trials in sub-Saharan Africa, itself based on meningitis testing done by Pfizer in Nigeria in the mid-’90s.
Viewers may be shocked by the commonplace off-the-cuff jokes about girls, dicks and their own deaths, but Strike Back presents the finest example of the attitude required to survive in this line of work and gives an insight into the rough life of a soldier and his not-so-easy day at the office.
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Photography and video courtesy David Bloomer/HBO