Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Band of Brothers 2: The Pacific

The HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers (2001), is one of the finest depictions of men in combat I've ever seen, so when executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks announced they were doing a sequel of sorts about the conflict in the Pacific (to be called, not surprisingly, The Pacific), I was simultaneously intrigued and concerned. Intrigued because the Pacific conflict is a much more ill-defined war featuring much more hand-to-hand bloodshed. I know far less about it than I do about the European theatre of war. The war in the Pacific was a series of horrifically violent conflicts where both sides did some nasty things. Most of it was fought on islands and atolls nobody in North America had heard of back then, and most of us would still have trouble pinpointing them on a map today. I was concerned because sequels (even if it really wasn't one) are usually inferior. Lightning rarely strikes twice.

Well, based on the first three episodes I've seen, it shows real promise. Let me briefly backtrack to Band of Brothers. After watching the first episode, I wasn't convinced it was going to be any good. Set during basic training, the episode featured the worst cliché of WW2 pictures, the evil DI (Drill Instructor) who treats the men worse than dirt and turns out to be completely incompetent. Played by Friends' David Schwimmer, he was a ridiculous character who dragged the whole episode down. I gave the show another chance and I'm glad I did. The second episode, which depicted the D-Day landing in Normandy, was exceptional. Part of the problem, I think, with the first episode, beyond Schwimmer's bad performance, was the cast of unknowns, with their 'short back and sides' haircuts and identical uniforms were difficult to tell apart.

Another area that made Band of Brothers so strong and seem so very authentic was its willingness to not shy away from the darker actions of the Allies (one of the major characters is probably responsible for the killing of German soldiers who had surrendered). The Pacific doesn't shy away either. A unarmed Japanese soldier is used as target practice by the Americans, for example.

The first episode of The Pacific learned lessons from Band of Brothers, but then ran into a couple of problems of its own. After a brief look at the US in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack (we are quickly introduced to the three major, and a handful of secondary characters we will be following), we find ourselves aboard a troop ship steaming towards Guadalcanal. No silly basic training here. The men off-load and, after a few days of nothing, find themselves in a terrifying firefight with a very determined Japanese enemy.

The 'fix' to get the characters into the action creates new problems, one faced by Band of Brothers, and one created here. The cast of unknowns are even more difficult to tell apart here because, after that brief stop in the US, we are thrown into chaos with the troops on Guadalcanal. We have no clue who these guys are, and even have trouble not only telling the actors apart (for the same reason as in Band of Brothers), but even figuring out their names because they're either said quickly or not at all. The issue in the first episode that is all The Pacific's problem is that a great deal of the action takes place at night, so it is very difficult to see what exactly is happening. We know a lot of Japanese get mowed down and some characters we've been briefly introduced to on the American side get killed, but little else. Wisely, we get 'aftermath' scenes the next day that shows us the level of carnage.

Only in the last twenty minutes of episode two, as the men, after victory at Guadalcanal, reboard a troop ship and head for R&R, do we begin to finally figure out who is who. There is one magnificent sequence at the end of episode two that confirmed for me we were probably in good hands. The exhausted men, now safely aboard the ship, go to the mess hall to get some grub. The cook tells them they'll have to wait a few hours until the next meal. They ask for coffee and he complies. After he gives them the coffee, he says, "I hear it was pretty terrible." The men exchange glances and then one says "who told you that". The cook responds, "haven't you heard. It's front page news back at home. You guys are heroes." What makes this ending work are the looks between the men. Without saying it, the looks say "who the hell is he talking about? Can't be us." That brief sequence expertly summed up the difference between the reported event and those who actually experienced it. Sure, they won the battle, but heroes. Nah, we were just trying to stay alive.

The third episode finally allows us to get to really know the two of the three main characters, Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and John Basilone (Jon Seda) [we don't get to know Eugene Sledge Eugene (Joseph Mazzello) until episode four since he was too young to join the first wave] , as they relax and carouse in Melbourne, Australia. Beautifully directed by Toronto's Jeremy Podeswa (The Tudors, Six Feet Under), the acting chops of the cast are finally revealed (you don't see much when they are just a bunch of grunts behind machine guns). Leckie falls in love with a fetching Greek-Australian sheila named Stella (Claire Van Der Boom), and the affair is depicted in a pleasantly frisky manner with a streak of sadness underneath. Basilone is awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery at Guadalcanal Don't ask me how. It was, as I said, difficult to see He finds himself reluctantly shipped home to help sell War Bonds. The other marines goof around Oz as any very young man would likely do while away from home for the first time.

As the episode ends, we know that further battles are coming and these men, who have already seen plenty, are in for a whole lot more. After I watch the next batch of episodes, I'll report further if this series is maintaining the very high bar set by its great predecessor, Band of Brothers.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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