Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Second Look at HBO's Horrifying The Pacific

Let me be blunt. Films or mini-series about the war in the Pacific in World War II have been few and far between because it was one gigantic horror show from beginning to end. Most that have been made -- save David Lean's Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) -- have been commercial if not critical flops (Terence Mallick's overrated The Thin Red Line (1998), for example). Obviously, the war in the European theatre was no picnic -- the barbarity there was equally deranged -- but at least there were brief glimmers of humanity and dignity within it (and as one European vet tells a returning Pacific vet "I at least got down time in Paris or London"). The war in the Pacific was a seemingly unrelenting bloodbath. Now that I've finished watching Tom Hank's and Steven Spielberg's The Pacific (they were the executive producers), I understand why it never got the ratings or the critical acclaim the European-set predecessor, Band of Brothers (2001), received. The Pacific is a shattering, deeply disturbing nightmare that will haunt you long after it is over. As depicted, both sides committed atrocious acts, innumerable atrocious acts. Nobody comes off well, and the characters we spend 10 or so hours following end up seriously emotionally damaged (those that survive, that is). This is not material that goes down very easily on a Sunday evening before the start of the work week.

After the respite of episode three's Australian r & r (I wrote about the first three eps on May 5, 2010), episodes four through ten plunge us back into the meat grinder. Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) is finally old enough to join up and, after basic training, is sent overseas as a mortar specialist. John Basilone (Jon Seda) is still back home, feeling increasingly unfulfilled and alienated, as a Medal of Honour winner assigned the task of drumming up more 'filler' for the meat grinder. While Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) slowly unravels from what he's been through.

Leckie is who we follow first. In the unrelenting massacres he lives through on the various islands he lands on, Leckie witnesses (and does nothing about), amongst other things, one of his fellow marines slowly strangling to death an unarmed and badly injured Japanese soldier. After killing the soldier, the marine turns to the stunned, numb Leckie and gives him a mad-man's smile. Leckie is also helpless to stop another marine from committing suicide right in front of him. The incessant Japanese assaults, the increasing insanity of his fellow soldiers and never-relenting downpour unravels Leckie's psyche.

He is finally shipped out to recover, where he is put under the watchful eye an army psychiatrist, played by Matt Craven. These scenes play a little bit too much like the episodes in the TV series M*A*S*H when Hawkeye Pierce would come unglued and have to be 'put back together again' by the army shrink (or perhaps too much like Yossarian in Catch-22 getting caught in a, well, Catch-22). Yet, even within that flaw, Dale's performance is nearly note perfect. All around him is insanity, and yet we still understand why he demands to rejoin his fellow marines upon his recovery. Yet both he and Basilone (who finally gets his wish and is sent back overseas just in time for Iwo Jima) play only a secondary role for the remainder of the show (though, while still in the US, Basilone has a lovely, flirtatious encounter with his future wife, Lena, wonderfully played by Law & Order's Annie Parisee).

If truth be told, the majority of the last five episodes are really Eugene Sledges' story. His change from excited youth anxious to fight to fucked-up veteran after the war -- it's no spoiler, since the series is partially based on his memoirs, With The Old Breed (1981) and the posthumously published China Marine (2002) -- is beautiful portrayed by Joseph Mazzello. If there's a weakness in the Sledge story it is with one of his co-stars. New-Orleans native, Merriell 'Snafu' Shelton, played by Rami Malek, is already a veteran of many battles when Sledge arrives on the scene. Snafu takes Sledge under his wing while he finds his footing in the terrifying world he's been thrust into. The problem is that Malek is clearly a capital M method actor who thinks he's either Brando or James Dean, I'm not sure which. Not only are his choices as a performer distracting and irritating, methody brooding is completely out of place in World War II. He seems to spend huge stretches of time just staring at Sledge. I wasn't sure whether he was supposed to be displaying homoerotic feelings for Sledge, or whether he was supposed to be acting the 'screwed-up-marine-who-might-go-nuts-at-any-moment'. He sure fulfills the latter when, after a particularly violent battle, he sits near Sledge and, as they talk, Snafu lobs pebbles into the top of a dead Japanese soldier's head (the top of the head had been blown off, so the pebbles make a disturbing 'plop plop plop' sound as they land in the puddle of blood where the brain used to be -- yeah, there's lots of imagery like that in this show and it is the stuff of nightmares -- and HBO wondered why this show wasn't the hit Band of Brothers was?).

Yes, The Pacific is not for the faint of heart, but, despite my stated reservations, this is a truly riveting series that is in many ways the equal to Band of Brothers. It's biggest drawback is that, unlike its predecessor, it lacks focus because the number of characters they chose to follow was just too small. Where Band of Brothers had 8 to 10 characters as our guide, here we are eventually reduced to only 1. And though Sledge is an interesting character, well acted by Mazzello, we needed a wider palette to draw from so we could get a bit of relief from and perspective on the savagery and monstrousness.

-- 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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