Under the Radar

NatGeo Chronicles the Fight Against Extremism in 'Chain of Command'

Baghdad, Iraq - Chairman Dunford listens and then talks during meeting with Iraqi forces (National Geographic)

The National Geographic Channel debuts its ambitious, eight-part documentary series "Chain of Command" on Monday January 15th at 9pm ET. Chris Evans narrates the program, which examines the war on extremism through the decision-making process inside the Pentagon and the experiences of men and women on the front lines. We had an opportunity to interview executive producer and showrunner Scott Boggins, who's still filming and editing the final episodes in the series.

"Chain of Command" is a fascinating exercise. The Pentagon is obviously fully behind it, allowing the producers unprecedented access to meetings and secure areas that we've never seen before. Government officials and military brass turned out in force for a premiere event last week in Washington.

There's very little advocacy for administration policy regarding the fight against extremism nor is their any critical examination of those decisions. What we get is a chronicle of what's happening with the men and women who are prosecuting that policy and an overview of how those decisions are made.

"Chain of Command" doesn't try to explain why we're still in a war that began in 2001. Instead it chronicles how we're fighting it today. NatGeo will air the program in 171 countries and 43 languages, so this story will be shared around the world.

Scott Boggins is an executive producer and the show runner for the National Geographic Channel series "Chain of Command.

Why do you think the Pentagon let you make this film?

That’s a good question. You probably need to ask them.  The only thing I can honestly tell you is that the discussions for "Chain of Command" took several years and the process of filming started, as you saw in the first episode, just before the Battle of Mosul kicked off at the end of 2016.  We’re continually filming throughout ’17 and we’re gonna be wrapping up filming the Task Force Southwest returning from Helmand later this month.  

We’re really doing something unprecedented, something that’s never been tried before at this scope.  There has been an incredible amount of reporting and an incredible amount of documenting work done in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan. There have been really incredible documentaries, but nothing like this.  

The process started very slowly and as we developed bonds and trust.  And it took a lot of time on the ground, for example, in Mosul.  Eventually, we were able to start to provide the depth of the story that you’ve seen in those first two episodes.  

Over the course of the eight episodes, it’s going to be eight hours on the fight against extremism. We’re trying to do it in a way that is very relatable through characters that we hope viewers can become invested in. We basically want to show people what’s happening on the ground through characters who are most involved. That took a lot of time. 

You're very fortunate that they allowed us to do something like this. "Chain of Command" is a collection of soldiers’ stories and some of these stories are at the very highest levels within the US military and others are stories of boots on the ground. Through them, we understand the greater depth of what they're doing. You can see their commitment, you get to see the sacrifice. We’ve seen parents say goodbye to their kids before.  But we were able to show a variety of people on Task Force Southwest their parents, their families, and themselves to leave to go on deployment.  

As you know, the military’s greatest strength is the men and women who serve. Our hope and our intent was to show and to tell the story behind the lens. We could only have done that through people, so this series is very much about the human element.  

Baghdad, Iraq - Soldier looks out of the back of one helicopter where a Blackhawk can be seen. (National Geographic)

These first three episodes suggest that you were basically given access to roam where you wanted.  Was the Pentagon as open as it seems watching the film?

We were allowed into some privileged worlds that have never been seen before. It took a lot of time and a lot of discussions to make that happen.  The show was allowed to film situations that involved sensitive materials and that was something that we had to be careful with.

In some of those areas, it took a lot of discussion to figure out how we could best film that because we just didn’t want to go into rooms that had blank screens on the walls.  We wanted it to be active and we wanted them to be going about their work.  That came with a lot of coordination and a lot of understanding of how we could do that. 

What kind of input did the Pentagon have into the final product? 

There were reviews for security reasons and for accuracy.  In terms of editorial content, there was none.  

A US Army soldier sits on the ramp of an airborne helicopter (National Geographic/Brian Lovett)

Who are you trying to reach with this show?

That’s a great question.  Everyone, to be honest with you, because these are stories that appeal to everyone.  We show very relatable characters who you as a viewer can feel comfortable with, that you know this person, that you feel like you know this person, that you feel like you can literally sit across the table with and have a beer with them.  

These are people, men and women, who you can see what they're going through. What they're going through is incredibly stressful, incredibly complex, at times incredibly dangerous. We hope that it appeals to everyone who watches it.  This isn’t series that’s very political.  We’re just basically telling a story of what happened on the ground.  

What's really interesting to me is that you're telling these individual stories to hook people in, but you're also trying to do this huge overview explanation of how all of this process works.  You’re trying to explain how the war on extremism works  and putting it up alongside these individual stories.  

This has been a process for us because, as you know, during "Chain of Command" there was no expectation for us to try to cover every chain within the command.  There are too many links. We wanted to try to focus on the links that would provide the greatest depth to tell the story that we’re tracking, like for example, military, or for example, in Afghanistan, or on the continent of Africa.  

We wanted to try to do that from the very highest level at the Pentagon, including the combatant command, and also to the groups on the ground. And it wasn’t just US military.  As you saw in episode 1 and 2, we spend a lot of time with the coalition partners, and that provided an additional perspective.  

This eight hours was an opportunity for us to really provide depth on the fight against violent extremism and how violent extremism manifests itself differently throughout the world.  How it’s different in Trinidad versus how it’s different in Mosul, how extremism could rip a community apart in Mosul or how extremists roots can take effect in ungoverned spaces throughout the world.  

Mosul, Iraq - Iraqi Army Officers firing M1 Abrams tank machine gun at ISIS fighters in Mosul. (National Geographic)

You set this up with one group of people at the Pentagon, you start filming, and then you have a change of administration.  Did that affect your process of making the film? Did you have to reexplain yourself to a new crew of White House people coming in?

For us it was seamless.  There was no difference.  We started in late 2016, we just got on the ground in Mosul, and as you saw in the first episode we covered the inauguration. We had six cameras and we tried to do it from every perspective we could.  And so for us, there were no hiccups.  

Give us a little bit about your background as a filmmaker and how that relates to making a film about the US military.

I started with NBC at the Olympics and I did those profiles on Olympic athletes.  Fom the beginning, I was always fascinated by every athlete’s story.I moved from telling small features to making full-on documentaries. I wanted to do stories on basketball seasons, I did Division I basketball teams and football teams. I did boxers leading up to the big fight.  

I was able to then weave that type of storytelling into non-sports stuff with "The Circus" in 2016 and got an opportunity to explore politics. I love to  explore new worlds and do it in a way that allows viewers to understand the subject matter, but understand it in a real, authentic way through very relatable characters.  

So whether you're a snowboarder getting ready for the Olympic games or you happen to be a mother or a father gearing up to go to Afghanistan,  that’s completely different, a thousand percent different in terms of the mission, in terms of what they do.  But the world in which they live in, they think it’s not a big deal, that this is their job.  But to us they're heroes.  What they do is extraordinary and what they represent and what they can do is extraordinary.  

To be able to go into "Chain of Command" and to explore and work with these people, the men and women of the US military, is a massive, massive privilege for me and my entire team.  

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