HBO, Hanks, Spielberg Deliver Must-Watch The Pacific

by Anne Thompson
March 21, 2010 5:49 AM
7 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
Tim Appelo reviews Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg's follow-up to HBO's Band of Brothers, The Pacific.

The two-fisted, ten-part WW II series The Pacific (Sunday on HBO) cost more than one-tenth as much money as the North spent on the Civil War. Was it a good investment? Depends on how you look at it. And I would look at it – this Sunday’s second episode, a propulsive plunge into the war’s first heroically enormous battle, 1943’s Guadalcanal, is way better than last week’s pokey-paced intro episode, and don’t worry about coming in late. You’ll get to know the band of brothers and the three main characters quick enough, spotlit by flares in the tropical fog of war.

The debut show got about one-fifth more viewers than HBO’s superb John Adams, twice as many as the inspired yet arguably shark-jumping Big Love, and less than half as many as the Tom Hanks/Spielberg Band of Brothers. Series fan David Frum (a smart, scary ex-Bush speechwriter) says that’s because Band of Brothers came out two days before 9/11, when the sight of saintly Americans kicking crazy fascist ass held mass appeal. Plus, everybody knows from Nazis – even ignorant Americans know the way from Omaha Beach to Auschwitz – while nobody remembers the obscure island-hopping Pacific campaign. And liberating Auschwitz makes a more crowdpleasing finale than liquidating Nagasaki.

Nobody ever wrote a bestseller called Is Peleliu Burning? Audie Murphy and John Basilone won Medals of Honor respectively in Europe and the Pacific; only Audie starred in To Hell and Back.

But Basilone is one of three real-life heroes of The Pacific, along with soldier and author wannabe Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge, who enlisted despite a heart murmur. Jon Seda, a Jersey boxer like Basiolone (and vet of Homicide), does a muscular job of dramatizing the big guy’s feats – like firing a mammoth Browning M1919 machine gun for three days straight, and dodging bullets to retrieve more ammo.

James Badge Dale, Kiefer Sutherland’s torture-boy second banana on 24 episodes of 24, aces the Leckie part. His wry look recalls young Cliff Robertson playing JFK in PT 109, only poetic and sensitive, which JFK wasn’t. Joe Mazzello, who still looks a lot like he did stuck in the truck in the tree in Jurassic Park, has more to cower about now as Pacific PFC Eugene Sledge, though his heart of course heroically shouts instead of murmuring.

The show bristles with sharp details you know they researched to death. The Japanese skull mounted outside the Marines’ shower, the maggots writhing in rice rations (“Think of it as meat”), the godlike nimbus behind the head of a guy hauling you off a rope ladder aboard ship, the ominous significance when an officer tosses lowly battle-bound grunts his last precious pack of Lucky Strikes instead of the crappy Raleighs they usually get (“We’re fucked now!”), the tinny tininess of guys shouting at you right after a shell blows your buddies’ heads off one foxhole over.

War-simulating technology is worlds ahead of 2001’s Band of Brothers, and The Pacific is as utterly, noisily immersive as any battle I ever saw on TV. I wish I could say the dialog between explosions packs the power HBO ordinarily boasts. On average, HBO makes broadcast TV sound stupid. The Pacific is intelligent and no doubt authentic, but the talk is just not as sharp as you’d expect. The story is poorly shaped, partly because we don’t know the history the way we do Private Ryan’s stomping grounds. But hey, we know John Adams’ times even less, and that series made history make sense dramatically in a way The Pacific does not.

Eugene Kelly was co-exec producer of The Pacific and Rome. Why is Roman history easier to follow than 1940s history?

Maybe this defect will be remedied in coming episodes penned by The Wire auteur George Pelecanos, Pulitzer-winning Robert Schenkkan (who played Remmick in Star Trek: The Next Generation), Laurence Andries of Six Feet Under, and Michelle Ashford from John Adams.

Even when the dialogue is wooden, the story has steely authority, and the cinematography is in medias res right in your face. It occurs to me that the reason I’m here watching The Pacific is that my uncle Cato Swalling, the most literary-minded member of his family, got killed during the Pacific campaign it depicts. Calculating his odds, he’d bought the Navy’s optional triple-value life insurance. The payout sent my mom to college to meet my dad. The Bomb prevented my dad’s ship from leaving Dutch Harbor and invading Japan (which, as HBO dramatizes, set a world record for casualties suffered and nastily inflicted). My mom, a straight-A science student, forbade him to sign up as secretary for a skipper at the next A-bomb test in the Pacific.

I’ll be watching next Sunday’s explosive episode.

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7 Comments

  • Paul | May 11, 2010 10:22 AMReply

    I have only seen up to episode 4 of the series & have found if very well done. It shows the horrors of the war in the Pacific as encountered by the U.S Marines in vivid detail. The series is however called the “Pacific “. Not “The Marines in the Pacific “. Australia is shown as a nation that did little to defend itself when in truth Australian troops & latter U.S army troops were engaged in bitter fighting for a far longer period of time than the Marines. This was in New Guinea, & in worse conditions. The first land defeat suffered by Japan in WW2 was at the hands of Australian troops at the battle of Milne Bay. The bulk of the land fighting in the first year of the war following the fall of the Philippines, Dutch colonies & Malaya was by Australian troops who were latter supported by the U.S Army; in New Guinea. I don’t wish to down play the courage & fighting spirit of the U.S marines; they are second to none. But they were not on their own. The highlight of the Guadalcanal fight in the first episode was the Battle of Tenaru. Here 917 Japanese charged 3,000 well dug in marines. The battle lasted one night. Compare this to the Battle of Isurava were 400 battle weary Australian militia & army , armed with nothing heavier than a few WW1 Lewis guns fought for 4 days against 2,500 Japanese who had artillery .They then made a fighting withdrawal to another defensive line . On the Kakoda track the Australians were outnumbered 5 to 1, but defeated the Japanese. In every battle that the Marines fought against the Japanese they had numerical & material superiority. The early fighting in New Guinea it was the Japanese who held numerical & material superiority over the Australians. The US Army did not come on the seen until the Australian Army had pushed the Japanese back to their coastal bases. To recognize that for a large part of the Pacific war it was a team effort does not diminish the heroism & great sacrifice of American forces. For a very balanced account of the War in the Pacific, written by an American historian I would subject “Touched with Fire “by Eric M Bergerud.

  • pg 2010 | March 28, 2010 5:20 AMReply

    --AGAIN ---beware the self-serving, dangerously diversionary,
    self-serving Hollywood WWII 'tribute' fest ---on this, the 60th Anniversary
    of the epic, STILL urgently unfolding, and once again mysteriously
    'forgotten' ----KOREAN WAR.

    HOLLYWOOD is enmeshed with and flagrantly covering for RED CHINA
    ---plain and simple...

    AMEN

  • Matt | March 25, 2010 6:48 AMReply

    Hey brian have u seen 300? if not go watch it, they put demon lookin creatures in 300 i was like what the hell is this shit so fake, besides the 300 Spartans who did die for there land and country, So shut the fuck up saying it looks like a video game. Im glad there is finally a series out about the pacific war during ww2 iv been waiting for this for years. The band of brothers series is the best war movies out to date.

  • Sgt. Gean Roehl | March 25, 2010 2:47 AMReply

    Don't any one of you speak like you can begin to imagine the shit we went through. It's unbelievable how far computers and everything have come to be able to make things look so much exactly as they did during the war. "looking more like a video game than an actual battle." Screw you. You haven't seen a dead man in your life. Don't pretend you know what the fuck war is you lousy cotton picking fucker.

  • Brian | March 22, 2010 5:14 AMReply

    I'm currently reading James Jones' novel about exactly this part of the war, "The Thin Red Line." I watched Part Two of "The Pacific" last night. I didn't like what I saw. For one thing, the haircuts on the soldiers are all wrong. Didn't anyone think to shave the actors' heads before they started shooting? That way, when it grew back, as it would have after months of fighting on the island, it would look like hair looks after being cut and grown back without barbers on hand. Plus, I'm guessing most men would have kept their hair short in the jungle heat and humidity for obvious issues of comfort. A small but obvious detail like that throws me completely off right at the start.
    The whole thing was very conventional. The battle scenes were standard action movie heroics, with the GI's pulling fully-loaded weapons out of nowhere in a pinch and blasting the Japanese at close range as if Bruce Willis or Schwarzenegger were at center stage. And we get lots of first-person-shooter POV shots and CGI blood squibs every time a Japanese soldier was hit, looking more like a video game than an actual battle.

    Big disappointment.

  • unbuttoned 10 | March 22, 2010 4:14 AMReply

    ---Self-serving moral alibi and moral undercut from a Hollywood that's
    been flagrantly selling out to the most awesomely genocidal regime in
    history ---ACROSS the Pacific ---for decades now.

    STONE COLD FACT

  • Bryan | March 21, 2010 11:53 AMReply

    I'm unsure how the number of viewers is calculated but, perhaps the reason The Pacific has less than half the viewers as Band of Brothers is due to the rise of broadband internet, dvr, and other less conventional ways of obtaining media.

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