Friday, March 12, 2010

War is Hell -- How does that make you feel?: Reviewing "The Pacific"

It's hard to watch HBO's new 10-hour miniseries "The Pacific" (the first hour airs Sunday at 9 p.m.), without being reminded of its excellent 2001 miniseries "Band of Brothers."
Both, after all, focus on the same subject -- World War II. "Band" centered on the European side of the war, whereas "The Pacific" focuses on the island-hopping Marines fighting in the Pacific. Because both projects come from the same production team -- which includes Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman -- they have a similar aesthetic. "The Pacific" has all of "Band's" grainy, you-are-there cinematography, sweeping music and loving shots of the sober faces of heroic young men.
The two pieces also have the same organizing thesis: "War is Hell." But, where "Band of Brothers" mainly concerned itself with the honor and nobility of being a good soldier, "The Pacific" is more interested in how war affects the man behind the soldier.
As a main character's father says in an early episode, men who've seen the horrors of war have "their souls torn out." Over the course of the miniseries's 10 hours, we do, in fact, see the souls seeping out of the characters as they engage in fight after fight and see untold amounts of carnage.
The series focuses on three main characters: the stoic, put-your-head-down-and-fight Sgt. Basilone (Jon Seda), arrogant but sensitive writer-turned-soldier Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and the young Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), who joins up in spite of a heart murmur.
All three are excellent, with Dale a surprising standout. I was primarily familiar with him from his work as Chase in season three of "24." "24" is hardly an actor's showcase, and Dale came off as little more than a bland foil to Kiefer Sutherland. But he's charismatic and affecting as Leckie, who has one of  the toughest times with the unflinching conditions of his war.
Aside from the three leads, there's also fine work by the always-swell William Sadler as a commanding officer, Annie Parisse as Basilone's love interest and Rami Malek as a crazed soldier known as Snafu.
"The Pacific" has a lot more navel gazing and talk about feelings than "Band" did, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. We live in a world where people are more cynical about war than ever. It only makes sense that a project about World War II produced in this era would reflect that cynicism.
Besides, this increased focus on emotions doesn't mean that "The Pacific" is dewy and sensitive. It has the same brutal, honest violence as "Band." If the new miniseries seems a little inferior to "Band," that's to be expected. After all, "Band" came first. But "The Pacific" is still excellent in its own right. It's powerful, intelligent and personally involves you in the lives of its soldiers.
War is, indeed, hell. But it does produce great art.
"The Pacific" airs for 10 weeks on HBO. The first episode airs Sunday at 10 p.m.

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