It is inevitable, though not entirely fair, that HBO’s The Pacific will be compared to Band of Brothers. Both were executive produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, and both follow American soldiers as they fight in World War II. Both also employ the shaky-cam photography and gut-splatter realism of Spielberg’s own Saving Private Ryan. But while Band of Brothers took all that was groundbreaking about that film and outclassed it to become one of the great American miniseries (if not the greatest), The Pacific is like a less successful younger sibling. It manages to convey the particular horror of the Pacific theater of operations, but it’s often saddled by too much exposition, unnecessary backstories, and an overindulgence in sentimentality.
Instead of focusing on one company of soldiers, as Band of Brothers did, The Pacific follows three real marines, two of whom, Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazello), went on to write memoirs that served as the primary source material for the series. The third marine is John Basilone (Jon Seda), a hero in the early battle of Guadalcanal, who spends the majority of the war years on a war bond tour before entering combat again at Iwo Jima. The presence of Basilone allows the filmmakers to focus some of the story away from the ceaseless fighting and brutal conditions of the Pacific Islands; it’s a welcome respite, but the heart of the film ultimately lies in its unnerving depiction of combat hell.
One of the weaknesses of the series is its writing: Do we really need to be told through dialogue that war is hell, especially when advances in special effects, and not to mention a budget well over a hundred million dollars, allow for some jarring and up-close combat sequences? Nowhere is this more glaring than at the very beginning, as the principal marines prepare to sign up and ship out. The dialogue seems written to hammer home big themes of sacrifice and father-son bonds (an all-too-familiar trope in Spielberg productions), and this overwriting threatens to sink the series before it even begins. “The worst thing about treating those combat boys wasn’t that they had had their flesh torn, it was that they had had their souls torn out,” says Sledge’s father, a one-time combat doctor trying to prevent his son from joining up.
Full disclosure: HBO apparently didn’t send the entire series to press for review, but only the early episodes dealing with Guadalcanal and the later episodes that depict the battle for the island of Peleliu, including one episode directed by the excellent genre film director Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress, Out of Time). The episodes set on Peleliu are much stronger than the earlier ones; they manage to convey not just the dehumanization of war, but also the way in which alienation spread among the allied soldiers. Sledge, the primary marine in these episodes, is played by the child-faced Joe Mazello, and it’s made clear that he is equally haunted by the nonchalance and cruelty of some of his fighting brethren as he is by the close-up combat with the Japanese soldiers.
Because some of the iconography of the Pacific theater is deemed less familiar to audiences than the European war, each episode of this 10-part series begins with interviews with the actual soldiers, wartime footage, and Tom Hanks delivering brief history lessons in voiceover. These segments are helpful to a degree, but they’re also jarring. They make it seem as though the producers would rather have made a documentary, and they also highlight just how anecdotal the rest of the series is. The assault on Peleliu, for example, was a controversial decision; over 1,600 American soldiers lost their lives securing an island that turned out to have no strategic value. With its 10-hour running time, The Pacific could have stretched its focus to include some of the reasoning that went into the assault while not sacrificing its grunts-on-the-ground aesthetics.
Ultimately, what a series like this aims to do is to pay homage to the Marines who sacrificed their lives. The Pacific succeeds at that task, asking its audience to imagine what those battles must have been like from the ground level, and for that alone, it’s worth watching. But The Pacific fails by trying to wrest big emotional moments from its already compelling narrative. Nothing I saw in the series was as ham-handed as Saving Private Ryan‘s epilogue, when Matt Damon morphed into an old man weeping by a grave, but neither was anything I saw as streamlined and graceful as Band of Brothers, where the embellishments were kept to a minimum.