Spielberg, Hanks' 10-part HBO series on 'Pacific' war

March 12, 2010

The comparisons are inevitable: Can HBO's "The Pacific" measure up to "Band of Brothers," the brilliant World War II miniseries set in the European theater?

The short answer is yes. "The Pacific" is great, 10 hours of masterful storytelling about island-hopping Marines from the same bunch that brought you "Band of Brothers," which includes executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

Yet it's a different take on the war, appropriate because the fighting in the different theaters was vastly different as well.

Whereas "Band" told the true story of a group of soldiers in the same Army airborne outfit who saw action in many of the key battles in Europe, most of which remain familiar to us, "The Pacific" is the Asian theater as experienced through three main characters, also based on real people: Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), John Basilone (Jon Seda) and Eugene B. Sledge (Joe Mazzello). (The series is based in part on books that Leckie and Sledge wrote about their experiences.)

"I think that, hopefully, what we're exploring in this is the individual cost of war - when you ask your brother or father or your sister to go to war, what are you asking them to do?" said Tony To, an executive co-producer for "The Pacific" (and "Band"). "What is that cost?

"I think that's at the heart of this - it's not that we don't explore that in 'Band,' but the focus was about a group of men who carry each other through. This was about three individuals and a close look at what they paid, the emotional and psychological and physical tolls."

The price, of course, was immense. Decades removed, it's now easy and typical to think of the heroic actions and sacrifices of those who fought and think of them as world-savers who were born to the task. It's also wrong. "The Pacific" does a good job of showing how kids - and many really were kids - were thrown into the fire and met the challenge.

Mazzello notes that at the beginning of the series his character is "18 going on 15."

"He's riding a bike," he said.

"These weren't professional warriors. These were painters and mechanics and electricians. My grandfather owned a deli in Poughkeepsie, New York, his whole life. It was amazing what was asked of them and what they accomplished, what they were asked to do - 'Good luck, go save the world, see you in four years.' It's unbelievable to think that it's even real."

Unreal savagery
The things these people experienced also seemed unreal - unreal in their savagery, their horror, particularly in the Pacific theater.

"In our platoon, there were 19 out of 20 wounded and two out of every three killed on Peleliu. That's pretty horrific," said Patrick McGinn of Sun City West, who enlisted at 17, was shot at 18, shot again at 19 and home by 20.

In addition to Peleliu, McGinn, now 84, also was in the first wave of soldiers to land on Okinawa. Both battles are featured in the series. Like many of the men fighting there, he didn't know much about the Pacific islands he would fight on - only that the combat would be fierce.

"If we landed on an island, we figured we were going to kill everybody on it, because they weren't going to surrender."

It was a different kind of fighting in a different kind of place.

"It's like this alien, mysterious, exotic place where there's no women and the guys are fighting in weird-sounding islands and nobody knows what happens," said Bruce McKenna, another executive co-producer, who wrote several of the episodes.

"The enemy is savage and exhibits a military behavior that's unprecedented in American history. It all lends itself to some really clear, delineated storytelling that's new and fresh, because we're sort of used to the jaded.

"As an aside, you're never going to see the Quentin Tarantino version of 'The Pacific.' Because the European one has been done so many times, you can then parody it. You can't parody the Pacific, because nobody knows about it. That was a huge advantage we had doing the series, going deeper, darker, grimmer - I think in many ways truer - than what we did on 'Band of Brothers.' It's a much more honest portrayal of that conflict than has ever been done before."

It's certainly educational, and to succeed, it had to be. As McKenna says, depictions of the war in Europe typically have been more popular, more ingrained in our consciousness.

"I don't know what it is about the Pacific theater, why we don't talk about it very much," said James Badge Dale, who plays Leckie and kept a photo of him on his bathroom mirror during shooting.

"Maybe it's because the people who know something about it decided we shouldn't talk about it very much. It was a particularly brutal campaign. There was brutality in the actual fighting, and there was the conditions in the jungle, and there was a certain amount of brutality in the human soul."

Producer To suggests that the fighting in Europe had a familiarity for Americans. This was the second World War, after all.

A different war
Asia was a different experience entirely.

"I think the European theater of operations is us going into our ancestors' homes, our cousins, our relatives," he said. "The value system that we were dealing with was the same. When you go to the Pacific, it's a cultural chasm. . . . That alone, that factor, made that experience so much more horrific and bitter. . . .

"Yet, as we go through this journey and we illuminate some of those differences, we hopefully will arrive at the commonality of humanity. They are American soldiers. It will still be recognized. If you're a German soldier, a Japanese soldier, any kind of soldier, if you've been through combat, you're going to recognize that experience and find that commonality."

World War II is known as the "good war." But that's too simple, too reductive. All war contains horror, by its nature, and "The Pacific," to an even greater extent than "Band of Brothers," repeatedly makes that clear.

"Yes, it was the 'good war,' " McKenna said. "You want to see what the good war really looked like? Here it is. And this is the good war. Think of what the bad ones are like."

Yet because we still think of this war in pretty straightforward terms, the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other, it makes it an attractive canvas for storytellers and probably always will.

"You don't have to deal with that murkiness that you deal with with most other wars," To said. "There were bad guys and there were good guys who were there to save the world. Let that be a given, and we get to explore the things that we want to explore, which is the human journey without the politics of it.

"You're not doing the Vietnam War, you're not doing the Korean War, you're not doing any of the, 'Should we be there?' You're not doing Iraq or Afghanistan, 'Should we be there in the first place?' You don't have to answer those questions. What you do have to answer is, 'What is the experience for the common man?' "

McKenna agreed.

"People yearn in their lives for meaning," he said. "We live in a postmodern 21st-century world where meaning has been fractured. The United States is divided politically and culturally. Not only that, even the way narratives are told has been fractured. To tell a big, grand story like this, a crucible where the stakes are clear, the response to the stakes might be complicated. But I think we yearn for that. We yearn for the clarity of not just what happened and why we were fighting historically, but the clarity of narrative storytelling."

Clarity, complexity
The storytelling is, in fact, excellent, and though the clarity is there, so is the complexity. Basilone will receive the Medal of Honor from Congress and be sent home to help with the war-bond effort, an assignment he tires of, requesting to return to battle.

Sledge's doctor father, detecting a heart murmur, keeps his son out of the service after Pearl Harbor. But Sledge's insistence wins out, and he ships out a year later.

Leckie, in some ways the most interesting character, is a journalist by trade and a machine-gunner in war. He has an almost bemused detachment from the war at first, even as he's fighting in it. Yet the fighting is so intense, so horrible, that it changes him, as it did so many.

"I saw it as this internal conflict in him," Dale said. "Would you rather die or would you rather go insane? Which is worse? . . . I think he was deathly afraid of losing his mind, and losing his humanity."

Yet in the moment, he was as focused as any soldier.

"You can't think," Dale said. "I think for all these men, when that moment comes, I think everyone becomes incredibly present. They're not thinking about the consequences. They're just trying to stay alive."

Stripped to its essence, that's what war is about.

"It's really about the experience of war being the guy 5 feet to your right and 5 feet to your left and 5 feet in front of you," To said. "That's the common human grunt experience. The man to your right is really important to you, and the man to your left is really important to you, and the man in front of you who's trying to kill you is really important to you. That's what you know."

That's the great challenge, to maintain the epic scale of the biggest event of the 20th century, yet do so in personal ways that resonate today. "The Pacific" does this exceptionally well. These men saved the world, yes. But they had to do it one savage battle at a time.

By Bill Goodykoontz

Source : The Arizona Republic