Trying to move as quickly as possible through this project, it's time to look back at episode two of "Band of Brothers." Spoilers coming up just as soon as I offer you some cigarettes...
Just as "From the Earth to the Moon" (which I'll get around to blogging one of these years; I know the damn thing by heart now) was an attempt to expand the historical world shown in "Apollo 13," "Band of Brothers" was designed to go deeper into World War II than the largely fictional "Saving Private Ryan" could. Never is the stylistic debt of gratitude more obvious than in "Day of Days," which opens with the paratrooper's-eye-view take of D-Day, and climaxes with the raid on the guns at Brecourt Manor, shot in the same grainy, kinetic, you-are-there style of all the "Private Ryan" combat set pieces. The technical achievements of "Band of Brothers" are amazing throughout, but I still get particularly big chills watching the CGI-enhanced tracking shot of Winters jumping out of his plane as the flak flies all around him, floating serenely (as only Damian Lewis-as-Dick Winters can) through all the flak and explosions and carnage around him and landing on the fields of Normandy.
Yet for all the amazing effects and photography and sound design, "Day of Days" wouldn't work as well as it does if it didn't continue to stick with Winters once he hits the ground. There are a few scenes he's not present for (the destruction of Lt. Meehan's plane, the business with Malarkey and the German prisoner and Speirs), but he's at the center of most of the action, and puts a human face on all the mayhem -- even if it's an amazingly calm face.
My three favorite characters from this miniseries are Winters (so perfect, and yet never dull for being perfect), Guarnere (Frank John Hughes' performance feels closest to an actual '40s war movie character without ever lapsing into caricature) and Speirs (terrifying and cool and larger-than-life), and so an episode that features the first two at odds while giving the third such a memorable introduction was always going to occupy a special place in my heart.
The tension between Guarnere (who just lost his brother, and is reluctant to trust officers besides) and Winters (who doesn't want to be in charge of Easy Company under these circumstances) gives the scenes an added crackle, yet it doesn't feel like some kind of pat Hollywood moment to have them nod approval at each other at the end. Having been through that assault on the guns together, how could they not have greater respect for each other?
This episode establishes a couple of trends for Easy Company. First is that the men who got non-fatal wounds tended to be shot in the ass, as happens to Popeye Wynn during the assault at Brecourt Manor. Second is that, no matter how FUBAR the mission plan may turn out to be -- for example, when everyone loses their leg bag, Easy Company loses its commander, and they have to perform the assault with only a dozen or so men instead of the full company -- these guys somehow managed to get it done.
As for Speirs, the cigarette incident is going to be debated over and over throughout the miniseries without ever giving a clear explanation of what happened -- because, of course, Speirs didn't want anybody to know. (We'll talk more about this down the line, obviously.) I had forgotten how ambiguously the episode staged the scene; my memory was that Malarkey was a lot closer and actually saw something, as opposed to turning at the sound of the shots but being too far to be an actual witness. It works wonderfully, particularly the expression on Scott Grimes' face, and then after we're introduced to Speirs as this potential war criminal, he comes in to almost single-handedly (and, yes, recklessly) kick ass on the final gun at Brecourt.
"Day of Days" isn't a perfect episode. Damian Lewis randomly starts narrating the final scenes to provide some exposition that I guess they couldn't include any other way (maybe a scene got cut for time?), and even all these years later with a pretty good handle on who the prominent people in Easy are, I still get lost for chunks of the assault at Brecourt, particularly on the roles of Lorraine (Col. Sink's driver, who would be one of three men on the assault -- along with Guarnere and Buck Compton -- to get the Silver Star) versus Hall (the guy from A Company whose chute landed next to Winters' during the night drop, and who was the only casualty under Winters' command).
But the parts of it that work... wow. After all these years, still wow.
A few other thoughts:
• As I mentioned in my "Currahee" review, it gets confusing that Malarkey is established as being obsessed with bringing home a Luger (and even risking getting shot by the Germans to do it) one episode after they set up Hoobler with the same identifying trait, but I imagine plenty of soldiers were intent on getting that souvenir, and it pays off in "The Breaking Point."
• There are a couple of great Truth Is Cooler Than Fiction moments during the Brecourt assault: the soldier getting shot because he got lost on the way to headquarters (Wikipedia ID's him as Warrant Officer Andrew Hill) and Joe Toye twice surviving point blank grenade explosions without a scratch.
Coming up next (at a date/time TBD): "Carentan," easily my least favorite episode then and now, albeit one that has more redeeming elements on second view.
Keeping in mind again that we're trying to be vague about future developments (specifically about who lives and dies) for the sake of those watching for the first time, what did everybody else think?