"Sid, what's it like?" -Sledge"The Pacific" opened with two episodes packed with action and tension, then took a break in Part Three for the extended stay in Melbourne, then went claustrophobic with a Part Four more concerned with the psychological damage of war than the physical. In Part Five, Eugene Sledge finally arrives in the Pacific, briefly spends time with his buddy Sid Phillips and debates theology with Leckie, and with two central characters in the field again (while Basilone is home selling war bonds and sleeping with movie stars), the series moves on to the jaw-dropping action that will dominate its middle hours, with the Battle of Peleliu.
"I slept with a woman in Melbourne. I'm not bragging. That's at one end, right? And then way down there, as far as you can go, that's what it's like. And that... that you can never imagine." -Phillips
As Tom Hanks says in the opening documentary, the U.S. expected the conflict on Peleliu to last maybe a few days, when instead it dragged on for more than two months. After Guadalcanal, the Japanese realized that hurling themselves at American machine guns wasn't a viable tactic, and instead realized they could dig in, use the terrain as cover, and go after the Americans in a more protected, more ruthless fashion.
And the Americans were not at all ready for that.
Part One featured a kind of nod and a wink to the Omaha Beach sequence from "Saving Private Ryan," with Leckie and his buddies bracing for a brutal beach assault that never materialized. Here, we finally got the "Private Ryan" level of spectacle, with director Carl Franklin, director of photography Remi Adefarasin and company making like Spielberg to depict the complete hell(*) that Sledge and Leckie and the others experienced as the boats landed on Peleliu.
(*) Interestingly, Adefarasin again went with a kind of heavenly light approach (as he did when Leckie climbed back up onto the ship at the end of Part Two) as the front of Sledge's boat opened up - only here what was visible once Sledge's eyes adjusted was the exact opposite of heavenly.
The danger of Spielberg producing another World War II project, and one that features soldiers/Marines landing on a beach under heavy fire, is that it becomes impossible to not compare it to the earlier work - particularly since Sledge, like Tom Hanks's character, briefly loses his hearing from all the bullets and exploding shells whizzing by. But if parts of it were a bit familiar, even shot in the bright blue pallette of this miniseries versus the desaturated grays of "Private Ryan" and "Band," it was still incredible to look at, and harrowing to watch as the attack kept going and going and going. The scope is much greater than anything we saw in "Band" (which had a lower budget and more primitive computer effects), where even the D-Day jump mainly focused in on what Dick Winters was doing and could see.
But Part Five, written by Lawrence Andries and head writer Bruce McKenna, wisely takes its time getting to Peleliu. We've gotten to know Leckie by now, particularly in the third and fourth hours of the miniseries, and here we get to spend a while with Sledge as he adjusts to being in the theater of operations. As we saw in "Band" when Easy Company's replacements started to arrive, there's this great distance between Eugene and best friend Sid, and between the devout, undamaged Eugene and bitter agnostic Leckie, because they've seen and done things he can't possibly imagine.
The episode closes in a brief moment of calm, as Sledge and his buddies talk about family vacations to distract themselves from the horrors they've witnessed, and the horrors yet to come when the sun rises. One guy quotes his father's opinion about the Grand Canyon: "You have to see it to understand... You have to be there, looking down into it."
Eugene Sledge is on Peleliu now, looking down into the nightmare the 1st Marine Division didn't realize it was walking into. He may not understand everything that Sid and Leckie and the rest have experienced over the past two years, but he's already starting to get a pretty clear, bleak picture.
Some other thoughts:
• There's no record of Leckie and Sledge having met, but McKenna justified the scene by pointing out that Sid (who was educated and liked to read) served with Leckie, and Leckie had a reputation as "the book guy," whom other soldiers would go to see for reading material on Pavuvu. Sid would have told Eugene this, and given Sledge's own love of reading and writing, they could have very easily crossed paths. McKenna: "Do I know that it happened, fact positive? No. But it's very likely."
• I know I complained in episode two that the digressions to see Sledge in America were a bit distracting, but I liked how his basic training scene in last week's episode was used to foreshadow the action here, as Sledge winds up in a combat scenario that's exactly what we saw him training for in Part Four.
• Sledge's arrival brings with it the introduction of a bunch of new supporting characters to keep track of. Three that stood out immediately: Capt. Andrew "Ack-Ack" Haldane (played by Scott Gibson), the officer who cuts Sid and Eugene some slack when he catches them wrestling in the dirt; Gunny Haney (Gary Sweet), the old (Haney was a WWI vet), very tan, very intense guy who yells at the sky when the rain stops in mid-shower, and who can get away with chewing out a lieutenant for poor handling of his weapon; and, especially, Rami Malek as Snafu, Sledge's completely amoral new mentor, who smokes and pukes and likes to extract gold teeth from fallen Japanese soldiers. (This was actually a not-uncommon practice in the Pacific theater.)
• Yes, that's Anna Torv from "Fringe" as actress Virginia Grey, who was at the peak of her box office powers at the time she met and fell for Basilone during their war bond drive together. (Basilone told others that he liked Grey because she cared more about the bond drive than her acting career.) "The Pacific" was actually filmed several years ago, before "Fringe" debuted; Torv at the time was just another Australian actor (who could affect a decent American accent) in a miniseries that hired a lot of them in supporting roles.
• I also thought it was a nice touch to show Basilone not only being uncomfortable with celebrity and being out of action, but with the fear that his brother George might get himself killed trying to live up to John's reputation. Being celebrated as a hero can be a burden, especially when you have a large family with others trying to follow in your footsteps.
• The movie the men are watching is 1943's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" with Ingrid Bergman (uttering the famous line "Where do the noses go?") and Gary Cooper. Hoosier's blunt, R-rated advice for Cooper is one of many reminders throughout the episode of how unfiltered the Marines were.
Okay, once again the goal is to treat the big historical aspects of the war (i.e., we won, Peleliu was brutal) as understood fact, while trying to avoid spoiling the fates of Sledge, Leckie and Basilone. Keeping that in mind, what did everybody else think?