TV: The Pacific

It’s been said that all war movies are advertisements, but I’d imagine even the most jaded viewer would have a hard time making that claim about HBO’s 10-episode miniseries The Pacific (2010), which may be the most brutal, unflinching look at the war ever filmed. Most of the rumors I’d heard about The Pacific led me to believe that it wasn’t quite as good as Band of Brothers, the famous 2001 series that chronicled the exploits of a company of paratroopers during World War II. Having now seen both, this reaction seems simplistic, although the comparisons are understandable. While on its surface The Pacific is packaged like “Band of Brothers for the Pacific theater,” it really is quite a different beast, just as the European and Pacific theaters were different. It’s certainly not as accessible as Band of Brothers, and probably not as re-watchable, but it’s no less effective. And in many ways, it’s even more powerful.

If Band of Brothers was a collective history of a unit, The Pacific concerns itself more with individual stories. The three protagonists, all Marines, are Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), a cocky, intelligent journalist; John Basilone (Jon Seda), a career Marine and war hero for his bravery on Guadalcanal; and Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello), an idealistic young man from Alabama eager to follow his best friend into the Corps. Through their eyes, the series delivers a harrowing look at a number of major American campaigns in the Pacific theater against Japan, from Guadalcanal to New Britain, from Peleliu to Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Each character’s early enthusiasm to fight, in the patriotic wake of Pearl Harbor, gradually erodes as the hellish, terrifying combat takes it toll, not to mention the wretched weather, rampant illness, and atrocities committed by both sides. The Pacific also contrasts the brutal conditions of the campaigning with emotionally jarring side trips to non-combat areas: an R&R stop in Melbourne, Australia; a mental ward for battle fatigue cases; and various trips to the home front in the United States.

The non-combat scenes are, perhaps, where the differences between Band of Brothers and The Pacific are the most noticeable. For all Band of Brothers’ heavy violence and emotional twists and turns, it does come down rather positively about the war: the justice of the endeavor, the camaraderie of the unit, the inspirational teamwork and stirring bravery of men fighting to rid the world of tyranny. The Pacific, on the other hand, is considerably more probing and critical of war, and grapples more intensely with its effects on people — particularly the psychological effects on the people who fight it. Time away from the line for the paratroopers of Easy Company often came across like an escape from the horrors of war; for the Marines of The Pacific, field hospitals and R&R and civilian life are emotional minefields, as troubling as they are relieving. This isn’t to say Band of Brothers is without darkness, or that The Pacific lacks elements of camaraderie or character growth or hope. But each series definitely approaches similar subject matter from distinctly different angles. In that way, the series complement each other, rather than mimicking each other.

The same can be said for each series’ approach to character. Band of Brothers is fairly glowing about its characters, often forgiving of their darker tendencies and behavior, but The Pacific’s treatment of character revels more in the gray areas — unafraid to be critical of its people, even as they remain sympathetic for behaving extremely in extreme circumstances. Of particular interest is the curious friendship between Sledge and “Snafu,” a drawly sicko from New Orleans charismatically portrayed (somehow!) by Rami Malek. Sledge’s inherent goodness and Snafu’s casual callousness undergo subtle, interesting transformations as the war and their personalities work their effects on each other, drawing them both into a hazy middle ground.

The production is lavish and assured, the combat is intense and unnerving, and the performances are striking, particularly from Dale and Malek. In the end, I think it’s every bit as good as Band of Brothers, and better in some ways. It’s not as easy to watch, and the story isn’t shaped quite as neatly, but that all seems by design. It serves as an effective, balancing counterpoint to Band of Brothers, and a chilling glimpse of a brutal stretch of history.

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