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by Jefferson Robbins The Greatest-Generation worship that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks share is appreciable and understandable, but by the close of their latest collaborative HBO miniseries, "The Pacific", you sort of hope they've got it out of their systems. That's not to say the story encapsulated here didn't warrant telling--the flash conceptualization today is of World War II as a European war, where "rules of combat" may still obtain. The fiercely bloody Pacific campaign--very much a gazing-into-the-abyss kind of conflict, making monsters of men--has become a near-afterthought. So a big-budget TV treatment, in line with the star producers' 2001 "Band of Brothers", seems natural.1 But by remaining "true" to the experiences of the U.S. Marines who fought their way from Guadalcanal to the doorstep of Japan, the story comes across as a thing of half-reconciled parts, periscopic views of the larger picture. I mean, more than a miniseries usually does--like it's two miniseries grafted onto one another.
"The Pacific" makes its emotional demands of us early in every episode, with a (quite evocative) credit sequence that holds up each of the warriors as a charcoal rendition of himself. That sequence also goes on for an interminable three minutes, washed in a tear-wringing score by Hans Zimmer, Blake Neely, and Geoff Zanelli that should really be incorporated into Fourth of July pops concerts across America. Revere these men, we're being told. This is Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan reflex, and the island-hopping advance of the U.S. Marines gives the filmmakers a chance to echo that movie's dramatic Normandy landing sequence over and over again. The Part 6 battle for the tiny island of Peleliu2, directed by Tony To, is a standout in this regard. When green Marine Eugene B. Sledge (Joseph Mazzello, one of the two kids in Jurassic Park) gets wobbly-eared shell trauma as his battalion storms the beach, we see it and go, "Oh yeah, Spielberg" (or "Call of Duty", depending on our frame of reference). As a war drama that must follow The Hurt Locker, set in an environment that for these latter viewers will most recall Vietnam, "The Pacific" also addresses the hollowing effects of war, particularly one that forces young, idealistic gentlemen to incinerate other human beings in their burrows beneath the earth.
"The Pacific" necessarily stammers in the telling, patterned as it is on the messy lives of real people who survived to write their memoirs. We're trained from the opening scenes to fix our attention on young writer Bob Leckie (James Badge Dale, later the star of the short-lived "Rubicon") as he signs on for Marine Corps duty after Pearl Harbor, ships out, and starts the hardscrabble fight for Guadalcanal in 1942. Alas, the historical Leckie was wounded and removed from service (whoops, seventy-year-old spoiler) in September 1944, meaning the show needs to shift to a different viewpoint character to carry through to the Japanese surrender a year later. This second surrogate is a writer as well, Sledge, who suffered through the brutal fighting in the hells of Peleliu and Okinawa. Though their two stories run partly in parallel, and though we have a third, overlapping focal point in hero sergeant John Basilone (Jon Seda), Leckie's removal from the gameboard in the sixth of ten episodes is disorienting.
We're fortunate to have Mazzello, whose naïf Sledge takes on greater weight as the war drags on. Sidelined from the initial fighting by a heart murmur, he yearns to get in the action, and arrives just in time to be thrown into the food processor of a besieged Japanese rim. Negotiating his first operations without a physical scratch, Sledge is instead badly damaged by what he sees and does, becoming inhuman to confront an inhumane enemy. His performance is more internal than that of Dale, who telegraphs a set of character tics that quickly grow predictable. Leckie is a far less self-disclosing character than Sledge, fulfilling the movie stereotype of wisecracking jarhead under fire. He suffers no less, though: observe Dale's scary weight loss for the Battle of Guadalcanal, just two episodes into the series. His arc is one of fits and starts, as Leckie enlists in the first episode, sees combat in the second, gets a bacchanalian Australian leave complete with love affair in the third, and so forth. As unstoppable machine-gunner Basilone, the everywhere-at-once defender of a vital Guadalcanal chokepoint, Seda brings the right element of unreflective all-Americanism to the part, although it's the story around him that compels, not the actor.3 Rotated home after his victory to sell war bonds, he embodies the yearnings of the professional soldier who must part company from battle, even as he beds starlet Virginia Grey (Anna Torv) in silken sheets at the Biltmore. With the world at his feet, he lobbies hard first to train up the new volunteers, then to be returned to combat duty.
The miniseries' overall rhythms feel off, but maybe that's part of war: hours and days of boredom as Marines take liberty, rack out, and rest up from combat fatigue, punctuated by minutes of mortal terror. Our window on the Pacific campaign is very much ground-level, from underneath the helmets of the unlisted men. We get vague hints of larger motives in their movements, but by and large, without a textbook in front of us, we're as clueless about the grand strategy as they are. We see no war-room convos among generals with starred lapels, no cutaways to Division HQ, no views from a destroyer's bridge, no visits inside the bunkers of the enemy. I'm not asking for The Longest Day, or even Letters from Iwo Jima, but some wider perspective might have helped. And shuffling through HBO's six-disc Blu-ray compendium of the show, we're further dislocated by its refusal to give its segments titles beyond calling them "Part One," "Part Two," and so on. There are no dates attached to the episodes, no geographic indicators to tell us which island we'll be hopping to in a given instalment, until we press Play. It feels as though "The Pacific" was constructed with the home market in mind, the creators feeling free to leave aside the overarching narrative of the war and focus on the human stories, knowing the real history lesson will happen on Blu-ray and DVD. While they may have believed they were honing the important part of the story, I think the drama is handicapped rather than aided by the decision. Spielberg, one of the greatest narrative filmmakers of the last forty years, should've sensed the weakness in his strategy.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
On Blu-ray, "The Pacific"'s 5.1 DTS-HD MA mix wraps up the viewer in the sounds of combat without--and this is my favourite part--forcing us to modulate the volume to catch the quieter moments. That's paramount, when you have stealthy patrols trying to suss out whether the invisible enemy with the completely alien moral code is just beyond the next canebrake. Once the firefights break out, tracers whoop past with a sound like a whimpering child, and people die in left, right, centre, and rear speakers, under mortar fire that whomps gratifyingly from the subwoofer. Visually, the 1.78:1, 1080p image does wonders for grime--muddy grime, ashen grime, gritty grime, dusty grime, in the sun and in the dark and under slate-grey sky. It's cinema-quality shooting, poleaxed only by the compositing. All these years later and the sight of men watching an embattled shore from their armoured sailing vessels still has no more realism than it did in Troy, while digital blood on the camera lens will always be digital.
The real value of this release, as the people who experienced the war continue to slip away from us, is as an assembly point for the survivors. In the set's "enhanced viewing" mode, fighters from the Pacific theatre share their stories of what happened in neatly integrated picture-in-picture commentaries as the dramatized version unfurls above them. They speak of butchery, battlefield looting, and the loss of humanity, and they're not always referring to acts committed by other people. They speak candidly, occasionally brushing up against the vast terror they encountered in their foxholes decades ago. I defy you to watch Okinawa vet Bill Leyden talk about getting blown ten feet in the air by an artillery shell without feeling a sense of sickened wonder and admiration.4 Sledge, who died in 2001, appears in these segments, and "The Pacific" is in part based on books he and Leckie wrote on the war. Brave in combat as anyone, his real courage is demonstrated by his confessions of how scared he was at the time, and how badly damaged he was afterwards. He suffered nightmares for decades in civilian life, and any sudden shock caused him to lash out physically at even his dearest family members. His 1981 memoir of the war, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, was at first tellingly titled Into the Abyss.
Alongside the vets, historians Donald L. Miller, Richard B. Frank, and Hugh Ambrose (following in his famous daddy's footsteps, although one hopes with less plagiarism) step back and offer some broader historical insight, as do text inserts and classic newsreel footage. We're also given the option of setting aside the PiP commentaries and viewing only those text and newsreel inserts in a "historical background" mode. Sadly, this marriage of commentary and film is a pain to navigate--there's no way to activate these features from within a show in progress, only from the main menu. Same deal with turning on a non-English language option, or the subtitles, and if you want those subtitles in English, you have to crawl to the top of a menu heaped with thirteen different languages. And while watching with subtitles activated, the text of the talking-head elements (whatever the picture-in-picture experts are saying) will overwrite any dialogue text. It's maddening. The sixth and final disc is reserved for supplementary material, specifically six seven- to ten-minute profiles on the Marines portrayed in the series, a standard making-of (22 mins.), and an "Anatomy of the Pacific War" (10 mins.), which encapsulates the historic context--including the homefront propaganda that made out the Japanese adversaries as witless mole-men with big glasses. All of this is in standard definition, with DTS 2.0 audio. Originally published: January 20, 2011.
1. Spielberg's own father, who fought in the Pacific, apparently groused when Saving Private Ryan came out that his son hadn't told his story. return
2. Talk about afterthoughts: I had never even heard the name of this island before I opened up this set, yet it was a crucial and costly World War II battleground. return
3. Of the many supporting players, the best may be Rami Malek as Merriell "Snafu" Shelton, the acidic Marine private who will not be befriended. He's hypnotic, and if he doesn't get to play a supervillain in the next five years, I'll eat my pants. return
4. I note many of the surviving veterans speak with Southern accents, but the actors portraying them don't always follow suit. return