"There are things that men can do to each other that are sobering to the soul." -LeckieI watched the first two episodes of "The Pacific" back in January in the run-up to the Television Critics Association winter press tour. At the time, I liked but didn't love them, finding it hard to let go of my worship of "Band of Brothers" - which shares many producers but not an aesthetic with the new project - and to keep track of the characters and the dizzying action.
Then I watched those same two episodes on the new screeners HBO sent out a few weeks back, and I was much more engaged, and had a much easier time following the action. Some of that, of course, comes from seeing the episodes twice (just like I knew who Muck and Penkala were my second time through "Band," but not the first), and some from the improved picture quality of the final cuts.
I'm hoping the picture issue was the more important one, and that therefore those of you who just watched it for the first time tonight were absorbed by this world from the jump. And if not, I strongly recommend giving Part One (and, if necessary, Part Two) a second viewing if you have the time, as it'll greatly improve your appreciation going forward.
So, no, this isn't "Band." We spend a lot of time in this first episode on the homefront, and not even on basic training like with Easy Company. We follow John Basilone (Jon Seda) to his parents' Jersey home for a family Christmas dinner. We spend time in Alabama with Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello), who can't even enlist yet because of his heart murmur. We see Bob Leckie (James Badge Dale) chatting with old neighbor Vera (Caroline Dhavernas, whom some of you might remember as the lead on Fox's "Wonderfalls"), who will later be the subject of Leckie's letter home from Guadalcanal.
And in all three cases, we see the men deal with fathers not prepared to see their grown sons go off to war, possibly never to return. Parents aren't supposed to outlive their children, but millions of fathers and mothers had to brace themselves for this exact scenario over the course of WWII.
After the long homefront prologue, the focus of part one shifts largely to Leckie, though Basilone and his buddies briefly turn up at the end, and Sledge's buddy Sid Phillips (Ashton Holmes) reads one of Eugene's letters to Leckie.
Hanks, Spielberg and company somewhat reluctantly agreed to produce those little documentary pieces that come at the top of each episode and explain exactly what was happening during the period that hour will depict. Hanks complained at press tour that when HBO initially asked for the documentaries, "those of us on the producing team that felt that context was a waste of time and once we got involved in this story, the context would be obvious." Ultimately, though, I think they turned out to be very valuable, because it means the episodes themselves don't have to waste any time explaining, say the military value of Guadalcanal and instead just give us the jarhead's-eye-view of the campaign.
So even though Leckie and his buddies argue over why they're going to this island nobody's ever heard of before, we understand, and can therefore focus our mental energy on appreciating the experience of being on the ground in this terrifying, alien(*) place.
(*) Director Tim Van Patten and director of photography Remi Adefarasin really shot the jungle as if it were another world. At one point, I jotted down the phrase "it looks like Pandora" in my notes.
In the 12 years since "Saving Private Ryan," the Normandy beach scene has become so iconic that we automatically anticipate something similar as the small boats approach the Guadalcanal shores, and the actors certainly play it up as if they're expecting that kind of hell-on-earth. Instead, it turns out that the Japanese forces have already retreated into the jungle, leaving only other Marines waiting on the beach. It's a nice meta moment, but also the kind of unexpected tension-breaker that Spielberg is often fond of using.
And there's still plenty of action to come, with the episode's centerpiece being a recreation of the Battle of Tenaru (or, as the river's referred to here and in some other places, Alligator Creek). It's at night, and completely chaotic, but I felt only slightly more confused than Leckie himself must have during it. And, in the end, things turn out exactly as Leckie's pal Chuckler predicted, with the combination of American machine guns and poorly thought-out Japanese tactics giving men like Leckie and Chuckler a chance to wipe out dozens of advancing enemy combatants.
The casual racism of the Pacific theater - the way the Japanese were demonized and viewed as something other than human - is a running theme of "The Pacific" (and a big departure from "Band," where the soldiers ultimately came to respect the Germans as being like them), and nowhere in Part One is that more obvious than the morning after on Tenaru, as the Marines take great pleasure in taunting and wounding, but not killing, one of the few Japanese soldiers to survive the night. When Leckie takes out his sidearm and kills the guy, the look on Dale's face is ambiguous enough that you can either view it as a noble moment (Leckie isn't as savage as his comrades and just put the soldier out of his misery rather than letting him die slowly as a Marine plaything) or as a vengeful, cathartic one (after that terrifying night, Leckie just wants to be able to look an opponent in the eyes as he shoots him).
The specific battle is won, and reinforcements (including Basilone) arrive, but no one is still clear why they're there, who they're fighting, or how exactly they can win against men so committed to their cause that they'll hurl themselves at machine guns and commit suicide-by-grenade if they can take one or two Americans with them.
As the other Marines sing to belated birthday boy Sid, "How f--ked are you now?"
Some other thoughts on Part One:
• The miniseries has three leads, but it also has a sort of Very Special Guest star in William Sadler, who goes to town in the role of legendary Marine leader Lewis Burwell "Chesty" Puller. Sadler kicks off the miniseries in fine fashion with a stirring speech to Basilone and the other non-commissioned officers, in which he declares them the backbone of the campaign and looks forward to sailing with them "across God's vast ocean, where we will meet our enemy and kill them all." Another key difference between this and "Band" is the level of esprit de corps that the Marines have, as typified by their uniform love of Chesty, who has no problem bantering with the enlisted men when he gets to Guadalcanal. (The guys in Easy Company loved each other, but weren't crazy about the Army itself.)
• As with "Band," I could probably watch the main title sequence - featuring heavy pencil sketches of several key scenes and characters, as well as a simultaneously melancholy and stirring theme composed by Hans Zimmer, Geoff Zanelli and Blake Neely (all in place of the late "Band" composer Michael Kamen) - several times a day and not get bored.
• Leckie and Phillips did, indeed, serve in the same company, though because Leckie was a machine-gunner and Phillips a mortar man, some dramatic license was taken to show the two hanging out as much as they seem to here. Leckie's other friends - Chuckler (Josh Helman), Runner (Keith Nobbs) and Hoosier (Jacob Pitts, whom "Pacific" producer Graham Yost later hired for a supporting role on FX's "Justified," which debuts Tuesday) - were all very tight with him in real life.
• I'll admit it's a bit distracting to be spending a lot of time with Sledge this early in the miniseries when he's not even in uniform yet, but Bruce McKenna's script does a nice job of establishing Sledge and Leckie as kindred spirits, with Leckie quoting "The Iliad" on the ship as the guys discuss Guadalcanal, and Sid then reading a letter where Sledge quotes "Gunga Din."
Finally, a few words on how the No Spoiler policy is going to apply to this series. History on a big scale is not and should not be considered a spoiler. If you don't know the larger points of World War II and/or the Pacific campaign, then you and your high school history teacher need to have a chat. But the lives and military careers of Basilone, Leckie and Sledge, for our purposes, will be considered spoilers. So if you know more about one or more of them going in, or read up on them over the course of the miniseries, do not share any of that info in your comments, okay? We were able to get through the "Band of Brothers" reviews without giving away who lived, who died, who got promoted, transferred, etc., and I'm sure we can do that here as well. So until we get to the final episode in 10 weeks, no talking about anything that took place after the events depicted in a given episode - and that includes anything in the previews for upcoming episodes (or, at the end of this one, for the whole series). Okay?
Having said that, what did everybody else think?