TV review: 'The Pacific' theater of WWII
March 10, 2010
Beyond the fact that HBO's ambitious new miniseries, "The Pacific," is a superb, viscerally moving and harrowing depiction of World War II and a worthy complement to "Band of Brothers" (2001), it offers a resounding yes to a nagging question: Do we really need another movie about World War II?
In recent years, the "Greatest Generation" canon has pervaded popular culture via books, movies and documentaries. When Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks did "Saving Private Ryan" for the big screen in 1998 and followed it with "Band of Brothers" for HBO three years later, some saw these works as a kind of nostalgic look at a previous style of warfare - less like the Persian Gulf War and the onrush of nationless terrorism. ("Band of Brothers" aired the first two hours - of 10 total - two days before the Sept. 11 attacks.)
Tom Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation" also came out in 1998 (as did the movie "The Thin Red Line"). Add more books and media saturation, and you have the runaway veneration of a generation.
It seemed that the entertainment industry had exhausted films about Vietnam and found the ongoing Iraq war too ever-present, a "living room war" that kept people from heading to the box office for contemporary takes on desert warfare.
Finally, documentarian Ken Burns relented from his stance that World War II was overdone and produced "The War," an epic and arguably definitive film that spanned more than 18 hours.
A different war
Why pile on "The Pacific"? Executive producers Spielberg and Hanks have said that veterans who fought there had pleaded for their story to be told because Americans were all too familiar with the war in Europe but not with what happened on the tiny islands of the Pacific, where their experiences were wholly different.
If war is hell, then the veterans of battles of the Pacific said theirs was a particular kind of hell. And many of them were dying off without having that story told (the same impetus that eventually got Burns to do his documentary).
Spielberg and Hanks also found compelling source material from two of the three main figures they follow in the 10-part weekly series. The books "Helmet for My Pillow" by Robert Leckie and "With the Old Breed" by Eugene B. Sledge inform the series from beginning to end.
"The Pacific" follows the intertwined stories of Leckie (James Badge Dale), Sledge (Joe Mazzello) and the highly decorated John Basilone (Jon Seda), while also weaving in countless other characters whose stories and journeys are fleshed out in a reflective, cathartic narrative. These were Marines who went in first and took the brunt.
Even if you think "the Greatest Generation" story has been told enough, the moniker stretched thin and dipped in revisionist nostalgia, "The Pacific" is, like Burns' documentary, a work that provokes awe.
It's the kind of fact-based fiction where the actual storytelling - who these soldiers are when we meet them and how their lives played out - is secondary to what they saw, endured and suffered.
That is to say that even if you learn that one of these real-life characters survived to marry his sweetheart and leave behind a string of grandchildren, there are no happy endings here.
The battles of the Pacific were horrific, played out in an unfamiliar environment and resulted in among the worst casualty rates of the war (the Americans were facing an enemy that believed in death before dishonor, and so rarely surrendered).
A string of writers and directors (and mostly unrecognizable young actors) have managed to create a war film that takes its toll on the viewer in a way few films have.
"The Pacific" is exceptionally graphic, relentless in its imagery of waves of American and Japanese soldiers being wiped out both en masse and randomly, from Guadalcanal to Peleliu and Iwo Jima. There's barely any letup because the overriding visual ambition is to saturate you in the mud, rain and hell of each island.
Spielberg has explained that the anti-Europe, unfamiliar jungle - "a ubiquitous organism," he said - is an important character in the miniseries. "The jungle killed many good soldiers during World War II, and in our film it becomes a Hieronymus Bosch landscape."
What "The Pacific" does exceptionally well is wallow in the minutiae of what turns young fearful soldiers into jaded and spent killing machines. Holding on to humanity proves quite elusive. There's no gung-ho here.
The randomness of who lives and dies and the suffering even beyond the actual fighting - everything from relentless rain and lack of food and water to poor or pointless commands from above - eventually take their toll.
"The Pacific" doesn't spend much time at home to delve into the postwar toll - how these parents of the Baby Boomers never talked much about what they saw or did (until their later years in the rush of "Greatest Generation" coverage); the series focuses instead on how their souls and minds were broken in their youth.
In that, "The Pacific" is a reminder. Yes, you've seen World War II war movies. Yes, war - modern warfare included - is hell. But especially in the Pacific in the early 1940s - time, place, strategies, weaponry, opponent - there was a unique combination that merits continued exploration, whether through fact-based fiction or documentaries. There really was a special kind of hell in the Pacific, and the people who fought in it were of a remarkable kind.
Source : San Francisco Chronicle