Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Pacific, "Part Five": On the beach

A review of "The Pacific" part five coming up just as soon as I spell my last name for you...
"Sid, what's it like?" -Sledge
"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
"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.

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?

33 comments:

itwasi said...

I am in no way connecting with this miniseries (and I'm an easy audience for this story). They're three years into war and I still think they're a few weeks in. I'm coming to the conclusion that a 10 part minseries isn't anywhere sufficient to convey what the writers/producers need to, especially for the Pacific theater. I'm sure the financial constraints dictated only 10 weeks, but each part is so short and I get no sense of any differences in location, or the military structure. I can surely fill in all the gaps with all the other WWII stories but I shouldn't have to.

Dan said...

Are Leckie's fellow soldiers fictionalized or are they "real people." My only complaint is that we really don't know what happens to them after spending several episodes developing the characters. It appears that one died from his wound in the leg and another was MIA. Did I miss something or did the episode gloss over that?

Alan Sepinwall said...

All of Leckie's core group of buddies are guys Leckie really served with. The only fictionalized aspect is that Sid Phillips, while in the same company as Leckie, would have been in different positions in the field, since he was a mortar man and Leckie was a machine gunner.

SteveInHouston said...

It's interesting to me how cool a lot of people are to "The Pacific", especially in comparison to "Band of Brothers". I wonder how much of it is execution, and how much of it is due to notions of "narrative".

Alan, as you and many others have pointed out, the Pacific Theater (i.e., island hopping) simply didn't/doesn't lend itself to the same kind of story thrust that the European Theatre (Africa to Italy to Normandy to Germany) did/does.

So I wonder just how much anyone can get into a series that tries to encompass the enormity - and the chaos - that was the Pacific war. Is it even possible to do so? Is that one of the contributing reasons to why there's been relatively so little literature and media produced about Asia?

And I have little doubt that tactics and strategy in that arena have hampered analysis as well. The war in the Pacific was really unlike anything Americans had ever experienced, as you note here. It was extraordinarily complex and brutal. The people that had to endure it, IMO, were much more scarred than the people that had to endure the ETO, which lent itself much more easily to conventional war storytelling.

Personally, as a child of the children of WWII, I think there was a clear demarcation in the way Americans saw themselves and the world, once they discovered the Holocaust, and once they had to slaughter their way through Peleilu, Iwo Jima, Saipan and Okinawa ... which of course colored the decision-making behind dropping the Bombs.

It's still hard for me to comprehend how anyone that endured the Pacific Theater made it back to America with any of their marbles.

bsangs said...

Riveting episode, but I must admit - the Sledge character just isn't doing it for me. Maybe because he's been so distant from the narrative before Part Five, or maybe because every time I look at him, all I can think about is him, Sam Neil and his shrieking sister running from dinosaurs. Might be a mix of both. Poor casting choice? Does he become more interesting in the final five episodes?

Loved the Gunnery Sgt.

Umm, any way Dr. Bishop can go back in time on "Fringe" to give us THAT Olivia? He has to have something in his bag of tricks, right?

dez said...

The beach assault was so much like "Private Ryan" that I got a bit confused as to where they were for the moment. It was well-done, yes, but distracting because of the similarities.

I like that the password was "Lilliputia."

Weck said...

Good episode. Toward the end I could've sworn I saw Dean Winters from "Rescue Me" playing one of the NCOs but IMDB is telling me it was New Zealand-born actor Matthew Dale. I was way off.

Daniel said...

I tend to agree that the events of the Pacific Theater do not lend well to a linear narrative. I can never completely grasp all that is going on with both characters and history. Maybe the story through one person would be more clear. Another idea might be to include a character of high rank who can key the audience into the 'big picture' issues. The opening sequence helps but to me does not create synergy with everything else. Also the actor who plays Sledge, Sam Neil, detracts from the drama potential. One poster mentioned Jurassic Park but I also immediately thought of Radio Flyer. That being said I like this show and both Brothers and Ryan have established a watermark that makes all comparisons difficult.

TinMann0715 said...

Good episode. Random thoughts:

1. I felt that the series was long overdue for a charismatic Gunny to break balls and be badass. This is what the Marines are known for.

2. I would have liked to seen the evidence of the invasion of rats and crabs. I hear about this stuff, and I am expecting 'The Pacific' to help me feel the experience of it.

3. A great scene with the Basilone brothers. One of the best scenes by Seda so far.

4. The landing was good, but missed the critical point that the Japs were firmly entrenched, fortified and camouflaged. This instigated the use of flamethrowers later on.

5. To keep things into perspective. We are in episode 5. It started out at roughly the same time BoB parachuted into Normandy, which started in episode 1 of their series. They had 9 more hours to focus on the details of their involvement.

Carter said...

When they interviewed actual veterans in Band, their names appeared on screen. They aren't doing that for The Pacific. Is it because it would serve as spoilers?

Why the lag of a couple of years between Pacific production and its debut?

Jesse said...

Alan, what is your response to those people who say "I just don't feel the bond between the soldiers in this one" or "there is no brotherhood in the Pacific"?

To me that isn't what The Pacific is all about, it's more focused on showing how this theatre of war affected the lives of three individuals which is why they chose 3 central characters who had 3 very different paths during the war. An example being Leckie who we see in Part 1 leaving the church and in roughly 2 years turing a complete 180 and disavowing the existance of God in his conversation with the still naive Sledge.

I feel like everyone I talk to fails to view this series as a standalone story and criticizes it only for it's differences from Band of Brothers.

TinMann0715 said...

@Carter:
BoB did not reveal the veterans names UNTIL the end of the last episode. Each BoB eisode began with actual veteran interviews, sans their names. However, it was easy tofigure out who Major Winters was.

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, we didn't get the names of the retired soldiers used in the "Band" intros until the documentary that concluded the series. I'm guessing this is because the producers wanted you to stay curious about who made it and who didn't. Not sure if they're going to have a similar doc on "Pacific" -- maybe Alan can answer that when he comes back.

One thing I don't understand, though, is how viewers have a difficult time separating actors from previous roles. I mean, I know Hoosier was the dork in "Euro Trip," but I don't fixate on it every time he's on screen. If anything, the fact that he's made it to something bigger and better makes me like him a little more.

nancy said...

SteveinHouston wondered how anyone who survived the Pacific Theater could have their "marbles intact." I just read yesterday that retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was an intelligence officer in the Pacific during WWII. So I guess we know of at least one.

Anonymous said...

I'm not really connecting with this and possibly it is all or part of everything everyone has stated so far. Maybe I was looking for something new or different on how to tell a war story or some connection to the characters that's just not clicking yet. It has all the elements, I just wish it was coming together for me better.

The Bgt said...

The cliche and gimmick dialogues have started to give on my nerves.

What is the target audience for this series? 8 to 13 years old?

WHY everything must be explained?

Do I need to listen to "you have to be there" 2-3 times in order to understand the hell of war and the impact on the soldiers?

Or listen to silly dialogues between worn out soldiers about God, life whatever.

Ok I finally get it:
the show was created for kids and teenagers probably trying to make them realise that a war is
not a video game or CNN reports but a living hell.

Personally I get all this from the intro - documentary at the beginning while watching pictures of the real soldiers and their haunted looks.

The rest of the episode I watch it as an accurate reenacting of the Pacific war.
The poor acting and the crappy writing doesn't permit anything else.

And since I dont want to bore you more with saying the same things all over again after each episode I will review only if there is a good reason probably at the end of the series.

Till then I suggest "Thin Red Line", "Letters from Iwozima" and "Flags of our fathers".

jimhenshaw said...

I think the inability of audiences to connect with "The Pacific" is because the series isn't trying to connect with them.

This is story telling by rote with Tom Hanks literally describing and to some degree "spoiling" what we're going to see over the coming hour.

That's followed by a recap and credit sequence with all three taking up seven minutes before the dramatized retelling with the characters we're supposed to identify with can even begin.

They also shot the 1st Marine's first two major battles with the Japanese in virtual darkness. It's practically impossible to communicate the horrors of war and its immediate impact on our soldiers if you can't really see what's going on.

I also agree with several commenters that I'm lost with regard to the big picture and agree with whoever said it would be nice to have somebody describing the plan or strategy (if there was one) or the chaos of not being able to do that in this theatre of war if that was the reality.

Taken together, it gives rise to a lot of scenes where characters deal with inaction and boredom instead of the danger and brutality the veterans regularly describe as "a nightmare".

Battle scenes like those in Episode 5 clearly show the filmmakers are capable of grabbing their audience by the throat, but so much of the rest says they don't really want to.

And therefore, we don't feel like it really matters if we keep watching.

Sister T said...

I understand viewers' frustrations with night time battles, but would they rather the story of Gaudalcanal and half the stories of Gloucester not be told because the significant battles happened at night? or rather that the filmmakers change history and have them happen in daylight or a full moon?

Anonymous said...

Why is everyone so anal-retentive and deeply nitpicky with their criticisms of this miniseries? I like it and watch every ep. at least 3-4 times to make sure I get the characters and nuaces right. It's 100% better than most of the crap out there that passes for 'programming.' We're stuck with reality shows about the Kartrashian whores and other reality slime.

This is excellent compared to most of what's out there so either stop watching it if you don't like it or stop complaining. After all, no one's holding a gun to your head or trying to extract gold teeth from you.

Greg said...

It was nice to see Carl Franklin's name in the credits. He directed two of my favorite films of the 19990's One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress. Good job on this episode.

jimhenshaw said...

Sister T,

Nobody was suggesting changing history, just changing the way the story was shot so you could understand what was going on.

Ambaryerno said...

jim,

Uhm, exactly how is changing how they shot the battles so that the nighttime battles occur in the day instead so you can see what's happening NOT changing history. This was PART of the terror of the Pacific War: You and your buddies are bedding down in your foxholes for a couple hours of sleep, when all the sudden a thousand screaming Japanese are charging at you out of the pitch-black jungles surrounding you.

I would have found the Cape Gloucester battle FAR less intense if it had been filmed as a bright sunny day, or a night with a clear sky and full moon. The driving rain, periodic lightning illuminating the battlefield, and the muzzle flashes of the machine guns and rifles of the Marines in the darkness CONTRIBUTED to the visual texture of the scene (and I LOVED the steam rising from the hot gun barrels as the rain fell on them). The scene would have lost a LOT of its surreal beauty if they had shot it in any other way.

I'm GLAD they made the stylistic decision to follow history and utilized the darkness. I found it only added to the tension of the battles when you can't see the attack coming before it hits.

Dan said...

To the people STILL complaining about the night battle sequences... my wife and I simply turned out the living room lights to watch those episodes. We could see everything just fine.

אורי said...

*snore* *snore* *snore*

Anonymous said...

why do people keep insisting this is a BOB redo?

jimhenshaw said...

Anonymous,

Not to get too technical, but there are dozens of ways to recreate a night battle so that it provides the kind of surprise and terror you describe.

But it wasn't done. It's the kind of production inattention that makes people like the other commenter turn out their lights so they could understand what was going on.

There's a level of just not caring about the audience or not working for anything new.

Therefore you end up with moments like the battlefield deafness moment that's obviously historically accurate but was a repeat of a memorable moment these producing partners have used before.

All I'm saying is that the detail and care taken on "Band of Brothers" doesn't appear to have had the same priority on "The Pacific".

When an audience has difficulty following the story, they often move on to something else.

And the ratings seem to confirm that's happening.

Anonymous said...

I didn't turn out my lights and I knew what was going on. Clearly the way those nighttime battle scenes were shot was a conscious choice, made to convey very specific feelings. You may not agree, but I thought it worked brilliantly. However, calling it "production inattention" seems off the mark to me.

Kujo said...

I think this was the best ep so far. The "Battle of Peleliu" beach storming scene was spectacular. Superb direction to say the least.

I hadn't bothered looking up the name of the actor who plays Eugene, and kept trying to remember where I had seen him. Jurassic Park, of course. :)

Nice seeing Torv in something other than "Fringe". Damn sexy in this role. I wasn't sure when the mini-series was filmed (2007-2008), so I had initially thought this scene was done in her off-season from Fringe.

It was great to have finally have a battle scene in daylight, and not in darkness.

Anonymous said...

I had high expectations for this series based on the excellence of "Band of Brothers".

If I could say one thing to the producers I'd say, "Don't tell us. Show us." Based on the other comments I'm reading I'm not alone.

Having said that I feel Part Five is setting us up to spend some time in one place so we might get to actually feel some of the hardships of battle.

Anonymous said...

Rami Malek was amazing in this episode. He, alone, made this episode great. Hopefully his character gets more screentime in the upcoming episodes.

Jon B said...

I am enjoying this series to a degree, but my disappointments do not just stem from having thoroughly enjoyed BoB... more significantly than that, I've been waiting in anticipation for this series since it was first announced -- over FOUR years ago! (I think it was provisionally entitled 'The Pacific War' at the time?).

I agree with others that a 10-part mini-series is insufficient to convey the experience of the US marines in the huge Pacific conflict.

With that in mind, why complicate the task further by trying to incorporate three central characters with their own storylines?

Perhaps the writers should have dropped Basilone as a main character but kept him as a significant secondary character in the Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima battles. The Basilone war bonds sub-plot is unnecessary (in such a tight-fitting series), because that theme has already been thoroughly portrayed in 'Memphis Belle' and even more so in 'Flags of Our Fathers'.

Dropping at least one central character would have meant the series could concentrate more on Leckie and/or Sledge (for whom there is more source material i.e. published memoirs) and their fellow soldiers, giving the writers more room to develop these characters and give us the bigger picture of the Pacific war.

I also agree with what others say about the Tom Hanks intros. If your Pacific war history knowledge is up to scratch, the intros are useless anyway (just put 'Guadalcanal 1942' on the title screen, for example). For those less familiar with the history, the intros are arguably a spoiler to some degree. Worse still, combined with the 'story so far' recaps and overly-long title sequence, this clutter really eats into the limited time to get stuck into the actual story each week.

For example, episode 5 is approx. 55 minutes long. The very first actual scene doesn't start until the 7 minute mark, and the last 4 minutes are taken up with end credits. That leaves only 80% of the total time for actual story telling! The previous episodes are much the same in this respect.

I think the underlying theme of most people's gripes with this series is the lack of depth. With such a tight limit of 10 x 54 minutes to tell such a big story, I think too much time has been wasted on recaps, intros, title sequences, end credits -- and at least one central character too many.

Julia said...

I think that my biggest problem with this series is that I'm only connecting with Leckie, and everytime he's off screen, I'm pretty much uninterested.

asterisk8 said...

I'm enjoying the series, although I agree about the wasted time spent on 3 minute mini-docs, 2 minute recaps, a 2 minute intro, a minute of upcoming scenes, and 3 minutes of credits. All that time shortens the length of the actual story to nearly that of a network TV show. I find that appalling. 11 minutes out of each week that could be used to fill some of the holes in the narrative.

When you think about it, by the end of the series, we will have lost out on almost two hours of story, making The Pacific more like an 8-part miniseries.