TV Review: HBO's 'The Pacific'
HBO's 10-hour companion to 'Band of Brothers' is its own work of excellence
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When I did my list of TV's Best of the Decade for the Aughts, I excluded miniseries and and made-for-TV movies. If I'd chosen to expand that field, HBO's "Band of Brothers" would have taken a place in the Top 10, probably the Top 5. If you're looking for the definitive narrative depiction of the American military experience on the European Front in World War II, "Band of Brothers" is a seminal achievement.
Finally making its beach landing more than eight years later, HBO's "The Pacific" aims for nothing less than being a similarly indispensable account of the island-hopping campaign on the Pacific Front. While classic status is determined by how well a project holds up in the memory years later (a test "Band of Brothers" passes), I have no hesitation in saying that, to date, "The Pacific" is 2010's first landmark piece of filmed entertainment.
Visceral enough to leave viewers shaking, but emotional enough to leave a mark hours and days later, "The Pacific" may or may not equal the overall quality of "Band of Brothers," but it's certainly a worthy companion. That's high praise.
[My extended review of "The Pacific" after the break... I'll try to avoid plot-based spoilers for the miniseries, though we are talking about history here...]
"Band of Brothers" was a streamlined march across Europe with the men of E Company, taking its basis from Stephen Ambrose' book of the same title. It had a focus and through-line. It made progress and it made sense. It was an Army story.
That may be the sort of storytelling that suited the European conflict, but "The Pacific" is calculatedly and intentionally more diffuse. It's a Marine story. The writing team, led by "BoB" veteran Bruce McKenna, based their structure around Eugene Sledge's "With the Old Breed" and Robert Leckie's "Helmet for My Pillow," using Sledge (Joe Mazzello), Leckie (James Badge Dale) and John Basilone (Jon Seda) as the three main points of entry.
Sledge, Leckie and Basilone spend virtually no time together and yet they're three more clear leads than any of the soldiers in "Band of Brothers," where the emphasis was, as the title may tell you, on the band, on the brotherhood. "The Pacific" has a solid focus on three young men who enter the war in different ways and, over the course of four years of conflict, are forever changed. War is hell, you say? Not a very original sentiment? Well, "The Pacific" expands that hell to 10 unblinking hours.
Steven Spielberg, executive producer on both "Band" and "The Pacific," established the template for the aesthetics of cinematic war with the beach scenes in "Saving Private Ryan." It's entirely possible that 100 years from now, film historians will look back at those combat moments as every bit as influential (albeit not as groundbreaking) as the Odessa Steps in "The Battleship Potemkin." Thanks to Spielberg, war looks a very specific way now, whether we're talking about ancient gladiatorial combat (Ridley Scott owes Spielberg residuals) or different facets of World War II (even the formidable Clint Eastwood isn't immune).
Spielberg's visual influence was felt on "Band of Brothers," but he may loom all the more heavily over "The Pacific." The battle scenes are brutal. And they're protracted. They're triumphs of cinematography and sound design, whether depicting the terrifying night battles on Guadalcanal or the landing at Iwo Jima. The violence is graphic, sudden and it wears you down as a viewer. Like I said, War is Hell and "The Pacific" is a full descent into that Hell, where sometimes death comes to characters in moments of grandiose heroism and honor, but mostly it comes out of nowhere, a piece of a greater tableau of heroism, the sort that may not win medals, but sometimes wins wars.
"The Pacific" isn't invested heavily in military strategy. We only get glimpses of the ranking Marines, with William Sadler featuring most memorably as "Chesty" Puller. Mostly, these are young men following orders, battling the harsh elements and sub-par provisioning and fighting an enemy they don't understand.
The failure to comprehend the psychology of the Japanese forces is central to the pervasive confusion of "The Pacific." When Clint Eastwood made "Flags of Our Fathers," he felt so compelled to deliver a Japanese point of view that he turned around and immediately made a second movie, "Letters From Iwo Jima." The "Pacific" team won't do that, because it isn't relevant. This is the story of American Marines and if they happen to be confused to find themselves on islands whose names they couldn't pronounce days earlier and if they happen not to get the motivations of their foes? Well, that's the story. The story is in the choices these men make, but more in the choices that become ingrained, so that they cease to be choices and just reflect the way that war changes people.
For Seda, Dale and Mazzello, lack of comprehension is integral to their performances. In this respect, Seda has maybe the hardest role to play. Basilone was already a Marine veteran when he went back into combat after Pearl Harbor. So his character's reactions to the horrors of war have to be different. So Seda can't play the clear arc that sees Dale's Leckie and Mazzello's Sledge go from wide-eyed innocents to pieces of the war machine. All three actors are excellent, with particular admiration due to Dale and Mazzello, if only because their contributions could be viewed as slightly less expected than the more seasoned Seda.
While "Band of Brothers" was structured to have at least a dozen solid, defined characters and performances, the other Marines circling in and out our heroes' lives in "The Pacific" are often less distinctive. You'll find yourself latching on to the actors you recognize from earlier roles. In my case, that meant following co-stars like Ashton Holmes, Jon Bernthal, Keith Nobbs and Noel Fisher. You'll probably notice different favorite TV guest stars and whatnot.
Among the supporting players, I want to single out Rami Malek, playing a particularly nasty piece of work nicknamed "Snafu." The script and the framework don't allow for the creation of many vivid and colorful supporting roles, but Snafu becomes a welcome source of gallows humor as conditions grow worse and worse.
If "The Pacific" were 10 hours of grinding down American soldiers from one tropical battle to the next, it would probably become unrelenting and unpleasant to watch. But McKenna and his team keep tonal variation in mind at all times. For a number of reasons, our three heroes get time away from combat, whether via shore leave, hospital recuperation and other means. In these moments of escape, we get romance and humor and, frankly, relief. These departures are well distributed through the miniseries and the relationships and conquests outside of the war are pitched with the same epic consequences as the war.
Technically, "The Pacific" really couldn't be better. The cinematography by Remi Adefarasin and Stephen Windon is evocative and feature quality, calling to mind a number of post-"Saving Private Ryan" war films, without necessarily copying any. Because of the tropical locations and the disparate fighting terrain, "The Pacific" also looks almost nothing like "Band of Brothers." The color and texture are their own thing.
The editing is crisp and bracing. The visual effects are either beautiful or completely invisible, depending on the intent (and also outstrip "Band of Brothers" at every turn). And while I can't point to which score contributions came from Hans Zimmer, Geoff Zanelli or Blake Neely, the music is always terrific. Really, the number of different technical categories in which "The Pacific" presumably has Emmys already locked up -- sound editing, costuming, production design, etc. -- is legion. And it's especially amazing that into this mix, the miniseries threw a slew of directors, with Tim Van Patten, Jeremy Podeswa and David Nutter all working on multiple episodes.
How certain entries within this genre do or do not strike a personal chord becomes totally subjective. My grandfather fought in Europe and, coupled the inevitable personalization of Holocaust-inflected stories, that probably explains why "Band of Brothers" impacted me marginally more than "The Pacific" did. As we like to say, your results may vary. "The Pacific" is still well enough acted and written and the story and the sacrifices are so inherently powerful that I spent a lot of the last few hours sniffly and misty-eyed.
A couple notes on ideal viewership: HBO is airing "The Pacific" at the rate of an hour per week over 10 weeks. That's pretty straight-forward, but I can't instantly vouch for how well it will play with that spacing. I watched "Band of Brothers" in a week-long marathon when it first came out on DVD and loved it. I then watched the first two episodes of "The Pacific" before TCA press tour and while I liked it, I wasn't fully on-board yet. Rewatching those first two episodes helped me improve my ability to identify all of the necessary characters and that may be a good strategy for other viewers as well. I then watched the next eight hours over two days and experienced almost no fatigue. I particularly recommend watching the last two hours as a two-hour block.
There's a lot of really good TV coming down the pike, with FX's "Justified" premiering next week and AMC's "Breaking Bad" also set to return. "The Pacific," though, is in a class of its own. It's nearly time for Television Critics Association Awards balloting and I can't foresee myself casting a vote for anything else as Program of the Year.
"The Pacific" premieres on HBO on Sunday, March 14.