'Pacific' a foxhole view of war

March 14, 2010

Irony of the title notwithstanding, "The Pacific" is about the most hellish kind of conflict, a brutal, dehumanizing slaughter that scrapes raw every civilized impulse and wounds one's soul. You wonder, first, how anyone survived, and later, how the survivors manage to live with themselves.

"The Pacific" is Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman's long-planned follow-on to "Band of Brothers" nearly a decade ago, a production that used Spielberg's undercranked, visceral camera style developed during the shooting of "Saving Private Ryan," an effect that mimics adrenaline in the eyes. This is an ambitious, moving and harrowing project that gets right to the point. War truly is hell and there's no sugarcoating it.

Unlike "Brothers," which was a dramatic arc straight from A to B during the classic military maneuvering of the European Theater, focusing on the camaraderie of a small group of soldiers, "Pacific" is more scattered, more specific, more intimate. It follows the combat careers of three Marines (see sidebar, Page 50) whose paths occasionally cross, but not often. This is a foxhole view of war, not the big picture.

The primary campaigns are Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The 'Canal takes the first two hours, and dramatically these are the weakest segments, thanks to quite a bit of exposition. By the time the Marines are slogging through Bougainville, the series finds its head and settles into a nearly mute, hellish re-creation of the assault on Peleliu, taking three full episodes to tell. The combat high point of "Pacific" is the notorious airfield dash at Peleliu, when both sides were still maneuvering, before the campaign melted down into a cave-by-cave slaughter.

Peleliu had the highest casualty rate of any American battle of World War II, and some of the hidden Japanese defenders didn't surrender until 1947.

The Iwo Jima segment is brief but effective, but the hour spent on Okinawa is by far the most horrifying depiction of combat most have ever seen.

"The Pacific" is brutal. There's no getting around it. It's racist, foul, terrifying. It's also as accurate as humanly -- inhumanly -- possible, as it's based wholly on personal memoirs. The theme is how combat dehumanizes and grinds down the soldiers involved, doesn't glorify the heat of battle. Hatred is a weapon like any other here; the series doesn't preach on it -- if anything, it gets more laconic as it grinds on -- but it's clear that one must hat0e the enemy in order to survive. That's a tough lesson.

The Japanese are ciphers to the Marines here, almost as if they were space aliens. Although the series makes no attempt to tell things from the Japanese perspective, there are moments when the shared humanity of the Japanese soldiers is at least hinted at.

One of the problems war movies always face is telling the tale without glorifying the subject. Some years ago the British miniseries "Piece of Cake" caused a stir in England because one of the Battle of Britain fighter pilots depicted in the show wasn't exactly heroic. That's not a comforting mythology. In many ways, war movies are common lies with which the public prefers to fool itself, and calls it patriotism.

The imagery of the series is so startling and horrific that audiences will likely need a second viewing to appreciate the storytelling and performances. It helps mightily to see the whole thing back to back, but that's a big slug of bang-bang.

There are any number of armchair military historians out there to fill us in on the technical accuracy of "The Pacific," but other than an anachronistic phrase here or there or a 1943 camouflage pattern on a 1942 Higgins LCVP, for example, it's pretty painstaking in re-creating those terrible, haunting campaigns of60-some years ago. Something no art director or weapons adviser can capture is the bone-weary body English of exhausted warriors, and that's what this series provides in excruciating detail.

Speaking of art, the credit sequence features charcoal sketches in the style of the great combat artist Tom Lea, whose images of conflict capture the harrowing truth of warfare more accurately than any photograph. What Hanks, Spielberg and Goetzman have done here is the film equivalent of a Tom Lea masterpiece.

"The Pacific" is the latest disciple of the "greatest generation" worship canon, that era of Depression kids who rid the world of fascism and then built modern America. The goals were simpler then. In a way they were lucky. All they had to do to end war was to win it.

By Burl Burlingame

Source : Star Bulletin