Regardless of whether you're factoring in narrative works of historical fiction or feature length documentaries, it's safe to say that World War II is easily the most cinematically represented war of all time... so much so, indeed that it's even become its own subgenre. Every year, dozens of new WWII titles arrive on screens both big and small.
Yet perhaps because the tragic plight of persecuted Jewish people during the Holocaust has impacted every subsequent generation, in addition to the fact that we had an instantly identifiable, horrific mega-villain in the form of Adolf Hitler and his “Nazi thugs” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt so memorably described them, it's been the European theater rather than the Pacific one that has captured the imagination of filmmakers around the globe.
Nonetheless, there's a reason it was called a World War rather than merely a European one for, as HBO's masterful ten-episode miniseries The Pacific quickly reminds viewers, American soldiers from every branch of the armed forces set off to battle two very different enemies on two very different fronts.
While both were at an immediate not-on-home-field disadvantage, the challenges faced by troops in the Pacific were far greater given the amount of islands they had to conquer and the incomparable external challenges the men endured in the unforgiving terrain where water was a luxury and there were no roads in sight.
These men spent months in damp, humid, bacteria infested mud where everything from mosquitoes to critters attacked them when of course, the Japanese soldiers weren't doing the same. And the lack of contact the men had with a civilized society and the often acknowledged feeling that they were lost, abandoned, or forgotten magnified the circumstances even more, as war became as mentally as it was physically demanding.
For the Marines stationed in the Pacific, the fear of the unknown along with the realization that they were dealing with a bold enemy who had not only had attacked them on their own soil at Pearl Harbor but were also so unafraid of death that they happily welcomed it rather than even contemplating the idea of surrendering was something which they could hardly fathom.
The complete absence of a primal self-preservation instinct forced our Marines – as witnessed in the case of a few main characters seen in this engrossing epic – to get in touch with the darkest parts of their own nature, second-guessing their morality and spirituality along with discovering the level of brutality they're capable of when pushed to extremes.
To this end, the filmmakers manage to make history come alive in a way that never glorifies violence or makes light of the rather disturbing situations in which the troops found themselves by the work’s refusal to sanitize the brutality or cheapen the experience in the name of a patriotism as propaganda by taking an easy, politically correct flag-waving route.
An auspiciously mesmerizing companion piece to HBO’s 2001 European-focused miniseries Band of Brothers made with the participation of numerous behind-the-scenes crew members from producers Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman to those in various technical departments, The Pacific is infused with the same high level of quality and commitment to authenticity, which is evident from start to finish.
With this in mind, it carves out a large amount of its structural backbone from memoirs by Robert Leckie (Helmet for My Pillow) and Eugene Sledge (With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa and China Marine) along with Chuck Tatum’s Red Blood, Black Sand.
Predictably for HBO and especially for the Blu-ray 1080 pixel, 5.1 surround sound high definition format, the production values are first rate as the explosions rock vibrate through your living room and often overwhelm the quieter, conversational moments. Needless to say, you get so lost in the expertly staged battle sequences that at times some of the supporting players get a bit lost in the shuffle, overshadowed by the epic scope of the work.
However, The Pacific features a wonderfully charismatic turn by James Badge Dale as small town sportswriter turned Private First Class Marine Robert Leckie who arrives in the Pacific right from the start to tackle Guadalcanal alongside the eventual Medal of Honor winner Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone (Jon Seda).
Furthermore, the various screenwriters and filmmakers working on the in-depth project make a wise decision to allow characters the opportunity to come and go so that they can then cover all major battles and explore the conflicts from various viewpoints, which is best evidenced when the bright-eyed optimist Corporal Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazello) arrives a few episodes into the work after outgrowing a heart murmur.
With the visceral advantage of having “lived” through the overwhelming, emotionally draining battles, by the time Eugene first appears on foreign soil, we view him with the world weary eyes of a Guadalcanal veteran, fearing that most likely – as his father had told him back home in Alabama – the effects of the war would eventually take away his humanistic spark.
Yet even though we assume it’s coming, it’s utterly heartbreaking to watch the way that first the slightly more worldly, admittedly cynical Leckie and then the religious Sledge find themselves at times on the brink of sanity, getting well past their fear of death or killing to actually become “good at it” as Sledge coolly remarks in the series finale.
To its credit, the work does move back and forth from the Pacific to life back home as Basilone returns to sell war bonds and Sledge prepares to leave in order to prevent the battles from simply overlapping into one another.
But ultimately I did lament the fact that not enough time was spent truly developing some of the main trio’s brother Marines since the impact of some of the sudden onscreen deaths were slightly lost on viewers trying to decipher which man we’d just lost.
Likewise, while it was mostly flawless throughout the entirety of the war in terms of overall effect, the miniseries does drop the ball to some extent in a slightly protracted almost ‘40s feature film style nostalgic final episode that occurs once the final battle ends.
Borrowing the feel of various Hollywood movies, one character works up the nerve to ask out the girl he’s liked since before boot camp, another suffers night terrors, and after a perfunctory line of dialogue about the need to give his son some time to recover from the past before thinking about the future, jarringly, the film offers up an American Graffiti style summation of the characters’ futures printed onscreen.
And although it’s a little disappointing that the film ends on a whimper rather than a bang – even if by then, our eardrums have certainly had their fair share of “bangs” – ultimately, it’s easy to forgive since it’s a truly remarkable achievement that actually managed to capture the heart of this (admittedly) Marine-loving reviewer on a more satisfying level than experienced in the impressive Band of Brothers.
Of course, together the two HBO efforts offer an amazingly compelling, boots-on-the-ground experience of what WWII was like for the men who fought it, by illustrating the precision, passion and power of troops strategically working together in seemingly impossible situations of horrific chaos to find the hero within.
Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.