'The Long Road Home'

E.J. Bonilla portrays Lt. Shane Aguero, leader of the ambushed soldiers in “The Long Road Home.” He is seen filming on location at Fort Hood.

National Geographic — Van Redin

Attention, TV viewers of Military City, USA: So what if none of the soldier stories that have saturated the small screen this fall have made much of an impression. The very best, as it turns out, has been saved for last.

“The Long Road Home,” debuting Tuesday on National Geographic Channel, not only delivers harrowing depictions of real-life people battling valiantly and selflessly in deadly combat, but also takes us on an intimate — at times, poetic — journey that involves quieter moments with the men in the field and their families back home.

Making it all the more compelling? That home is just a ways up the road — Fort Hood.

What’s even more unusual, considering the few television series and movies filmed in Texas in recent years, “The Long Road Home,” all eight parts of it, was shot on and around the Army post in Killeen where the real soldiers and their wives and children lived.

Based on journalist Martha Raddatz’s bestselling book, the limited series stars Jeremy Sisto, Kate Bosworth, Jason Ritter, Michael Kelly, Sarah Wayne Callies and many other lesser-known faces that, thanks to powerful and engaging performances, should stick with you long after the final credits roll.

“The Long Road Home” dramatizes the heroic fight for survival during the Iraq War when the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood was ambushed on April 4, 2004, in Sadr City, Baghdad, leaving eight dead and more than 50 wounded, a day that came to be known as Black Sunday.

The series cuts between the explosive action on the ground in Iraq and the homefront back in Central Texas, where worried wives and families await the news for 48 hellish hours, expecting the worst.

The first two hours premiere at 8 p.m. Tuesday on National Geographic, followed by subsequent episodes at 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Dec. 19. Here are five reasons why you shouldn’t miss a single, heartfelt, chilling minute:

Vivid characters

Thanks to author Raddatz’s detail and the devotion to realism by screenwriter and showrunner Mikko Alanne, we really get to know these people inside and out. Among the most memorable are moody Staff Sgt. Robert Miltenberger (Sisto, “Six Feet Under”), a career soldier on the cusp of retirement whose premonition of death before the fateful Sadr City mission is as moving as it is eerie; Capt. Troy Denomy (Ritter, “Parenthood”), a dedicated family man who adores his wife (Kate Bosworth, “Blue Crush”) and new baby, but also is fiercely determined to do right by his men and not doubt his decisions — even though he often does; and the even-tempered Lt. Shane Guerrero (E. J. Bonilla, “Unforgettable”), who tries his best to keep the peace in a situation rife with tension and suspicion.

Painstaking authenticity

“We received unprecedented support from the Army, in part because we’re telling the story of people who are around today, and in part because of the people that lost their lives in the battle,” executive producer Jason Clark told TV critics at a recent press session. “Most importantly, the support made this possible to actually film on the location where the soldiers trained before they deployed on this mission.”

Iraq street scenes were filmed at Fort Hood, too.

“Over 100 buildings were constructed to re-create Sadr City,” Alane said. “Great care was taken to replicate every detail, using photographs and video taken by soldiers … to re-create the architecture exactly.”

Two veterans of the battle, Aaron Fowler and Eric Bourquin, worked on the show as technical advisers, and soldiers and family members stayed in contact with the production team throughout the project, offering insights and memories.

Mike Medavoy

No one does war better than this film giant, who was involved in the making of “Coming Home,” “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now,” and served as executive producer of “The Long Road Home.” “I thought it was time that I tell a story set in Iraq,” Medavoy said.

Families that ring true

It’s refreshing to see children acting like children — loving, yes, but also stubborn, temperamental, even hateful at times. Spouses at home also react honestly to worrisome news, becoming angry or sobbing profusely, instead of keeping it together as they might in a typical Hollywood script.

Inspirational dialogue

Beautiful Biblical verses and lines of poetry help some of the men cope with their scary plight, while others such as Sgt. Eric Bourquin (Jon Beavers) spout nuts-and-bolts truths that have a certain zing to them: “Way I see it, don’t matter who you are or where, one day death comes. At least if we die here, tonight, for each other, we die for something. Ain’t no better way to go.” Spouses at home also crack wise to stay sane. After learning of the ambush, Gina, wife of Capt. Denomy, tells a fellow military spouse: “In ancient times, wives went to war with their husbands. I guess we still do that.”

Copyright 2010 San Antonio Express-News

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