Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Band of Brothers rewind, episode 2: "Day of Days"

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?


Unknown said...

This episode is particularly resonant for me (along with Bastogne) as my grandfather was an engineer on the C-47s during the paratrooper drop. But even were that not the case, it's so poignant. Your point about Saving Private Ryan vis-a-vis BoB is spot on.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea that Spiers was involved in the assault on the guns. Of course, I had no idea who he was until I got to episode 3. I can definitely see how a rewatch would be more rewarding than the first time through.

Eugene Freedman said...

I really liked the introduction to Speirs. (Note the correct spelling) The rumors about him were prevalent in the book, and he was deceased before its publication or the movie, so nobody could dispute or corroborate.

For a first time viewer, his introduction and subsequent, can we assault the last gun, can even seem like its a different guy. Moreso, when he reappears later, he may be difficult to identify, except for the constant rumors that float around him for his various actions. There is no doubt, that he's portrayed as a fearless leader, and someone who leads, as Winters states in his book and says throughout the series, "follow me."

Jessie said...

I'm not sure why, but my favorite scene(s) of all of Band of Brothers (with the possible exception the assault on Foy) is when Winters lands and connects with all the soldiers on their way to find Easy.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Thanks for the reminder on the spelling, Eugene. That's one where I always think I have it backwards, then fix it, then it turns out I was right the first time.

Toeknee said...

One of the most amazing shots of the whole series is Winters’ view down on the English Channel from the plane – all those ships, all those planes! Such a massive undertaking!

Regarding Lorraine and Hall, the writer of this episode, John Orloff, made this comment on the wildbillguarnere.com message boards many years ago:

“It IS confusing... Hall if the first man Winters met that night.

They later hooked up with more and more men, eventually, finding more of Able Co's men, so Hall went over to them.

Lorraine, who was part of Easy, attached himself to the assault team as they were preparing.

Hall joined the assualt MID-attack, when he arrived with Hester (who came to see what was going on). Hall had TNT, and as Lipton hadn't arrived yet, Winters had Hall stick around for the TNT. Hall later died on the attack on the later gun.

Sorry it's confusing. but we wanted to do it the way it REALLY happened. Sometimes this doesn't fit easily into a 60 min episode... but that's war-- confusing. “

Byron Hauck said...

Really, everyone thought Speirs was cool? Maybe it was just having seen him on Gossip Girl first, but to me he was laughably not-intimidating for the supposed monster he was.

Unknown said...

As a viewer, I hate the jerky camera movements, especially for the sake of having a jerky camera (which many directors seem to do these days). But, in the case of BoB, the quick cuts and jerky movements illustrate how chaotic the drop into Normandy really was. To juxtapose the action in the various planes with the floating Winters was amazing to watch.

Sister T said...

"Really, everyone thought Speirs was cool? Maybe it was just having seen him on Gossip Girl first, but to me he was laughably not-intimidating for the supposed monster he was."

I can see how that could happen to you. I remember my first time watching it, I kept expecting Malarky to turn into a bit of a flake because of some vague impression I had of the actor from Party of Five. And at first I expected Nixon to be a jerk because of the actor's role on The Practice.

It's interesting the difference made when these characters are played by "unknown" blank-slate actors.

Bit of a casting spoiler, but I remember the one thing that bothered me about BoB the first time I saw it was the casting of Jimmy Fallon in a cameo. When I saw the scene it completely took me out of the series (at a moment when the episode called for a serious note) and I kept expecting Fallon to do a goofy joke and did not take his character seriously. But then watching BoB again, a few years later, I watched the first episode and saw Simon Pegg and had the same reaction of expecting a joke and not taking the character seriously, even though I knew there was no joke coming and even though I had watched that episode before. Recognizing and knowing Simon Pegg the comedian changed my reaction to certain scenes.

Dan said...

In addition to what’s already been pointed out, one of the scenes I enjoyed the most re-watching it last night was the shots of all the faces on the plane as they flew over the channel. There was Guarnere, brooding and angry over the loss of his brother, a few other faces alternately fidgety, calm, nervous, then the one paratrooper who was dozing off and was suddenly brought back to attention at the sound of the first cannon blast.

I also agree with greatreader about the shaky camera (thought I was going to throw up during Bourne Supremacy) but enjoyed it here in the way it conveyed the chaos of the moment.

SteveInHouston said...

My second exposure to Matthew Settle after BoB was his brief arc as an abusive husband on ER (he was the guy who was married to Christina Hendricks, and who hauled off on Abby/Maura Tierney). So at that point, I figured Settle was totally gonna get typecast. Then Gossip Girl showed up.

One thing I liked about the whole of BoB, but especially this episode, was how it showed (but didn't tell) one of the US military's greatest strengths: the faith it put in lower-grade officers like sergeants and lieutenants by allowing them to think and act on the fly. Guys like Winters, Compton and Spiers were given very general orders (take out the 88s) and were allowed to assess and execute the orders without constantly having to constantly check in with superiors on how to go about that.

Without that base, Normandy could and probably would have been an utter disaster. That the guys literally jumped through fire to even get to that chaotic situation on the ground still causes me to shake my head when I watch this episode (and the opening of Saving Private Ryan as well).

That doctrine still exists today, and is one of the reasons that the US military is still strong, despite all the many hindrances placed on it by up-channel incompetence and bureaucracy (see: Generation Kill).

Mapeel said...

SteveinHoustin, I was just writing a similar thought. The chaos is so immense that it is staggering that small pockets of men could stay focused amidst the general fog of war and deliver the goods. And they jumped out of a plane to do it.

At the end the text says that the attack on Brecourt Manor is a textbook study in assaulting a fixed position, still taught at West Point. That makes my spine tingle. Shining moments of talent in the midst of hell and a lot of fatal failure. The "greatest generation" is a cliche, and then again, it's really not.

James Douglas said...

Yeah, the fact that the Brecourt Manor assault is still taught is such a great capper to that event.

Also, was anyone else kind of annoyed that Ron Livingston gets so little screentime in these episodes, right up until the very last few? I just find that guy so absurdly watchable for some reason.
Also, it feels like Nixon's whole role in the division is tantalizingly unclear, but very very interesting. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

Anna said...

- Toye using his brass knuckles

- Spiers had taking that gun on his own. I think that Matthew Settle is excellent.

Zac F. said...

I still remember getting chills when it was revealed at the end that the assault at Brecourt Manor is still taught at West Point today.

I wonder if the scene with Winters not able to open the can of food was to show us that as awesome as Winters is, he's not Superman.

One of my favorite moments is just after Winters lands, he and Hall start walking off in one direction, gunfire erupts and Winters says "To hell with that!" and starts walking the other way.

Also, when Winters unzips his pants to get the compass out and the two soldiers look at each other thinking "What the hell is this guy doing?"

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for reviewing "Band of Brothers"! It's my favorite miniseries. I remember catching 10 minutes of it on the History Channel a few years ago and thinking, "What is this?! Why was I have not informed about this before?!" I had to immediately get all the DVDs and watch the whole thing.

Alan-- I agree with with you that it's hard to tell all the actors apart at first. The second (or in my case, sixth or seventh) viewing increased my love for the episodes even more.

Unknown said...

I haven't seen Band of Brothers for way too long (what with leaving my DVDs behind when I moved countries) but I will never forget that opening of having to jump out the plane. It was just so nerve-wrecking, and if it was so scary on TV, imagine how it was for REAL.

Seriously, how crazy is the idea of jumping out of the plane when people are shooting at you?

Anonymous said...

I had never watched the series, I bought it on Monday, I started to watch it yesterday, I watched first two episodes and 20 minutes of the third.
Well, it's the WAR, in a word. In the second episode I was soooo surpsied the quality, how they filmed the gun shot (well, I don't know how to c├žall it, i'm a ntal newbiew in this field)but well, it's the oinly battle in the 2nd chapter. I was thinking all the time, omg, that camera, to and fro every single second, so much work. but the result is amazing. yeah, i was also suprised by the last lines with the off-voice of Winters, I found it difficult to connected to the previous way of narration.

i liked how he drinks at the end of the episode, it makes him not tat perfect guy, like, oh, he wouldn't drink at all, it's more like the poeple around idolized that feature, he takes it naturally.

also, i liked the finla sentence, I'm not angry anymore, or something like this. i don't think it it comes to present the character as a goody, but again, naturally developed.

Sorry for this terrible writing
and thank you for your reviews!

Anonymous said...

^sorry, it's HUNGRY.
and I'd like to add that I was also surprised by the scene Zac F. pointed out, about the compas from Winters' pants...

Toeknee said...

To JamesDouglas, re: Livingston/Nixon.....

I know what you’re saying about watching Livingston, but Nixon was not actually part of Easy Co. In the Currahee episode, Nixon started out in Easy Co., but was eventually moved up to be part of the 2nd Battallion’s Headquarters (HQ) company as an intelligence officer, I believe (this was in the scene where Harry Welsh was introduced). So he’s technically not part of Easy Co., and he didn’t participate in actual combat, which is what the series is focusing on. Also, from a production standpoint, there are only so many minutes of screen time, and there are so many characters, that it’s hard to give everyone the attention they deserve. I personally would have liked to see more focus on Talbert over the course of the series, because in the BoB book, Winters speaks VERY highly of him.

Matthew said...

Watching the show for the first time, and am really enjoying it so far, even if I'm having difficulty keeping a lot of the characters straight (even when you take out all the now-recognisable actors). But I figured out who everyone was in Generation Kill, so I expect I'll figure it out with this one. And that will make future viewings much more rewarding.

I don't really know that I've got too much to add, except that I thought the opening was just spectacular and horrific, I loved the blink-and-you-miss-it appearance of the brass knuckles, and I'm loving Damian Lewis' performance at the moment.

Also, it's really hard to focus on the show when you find yourself stopping it to check the IMDb to confirm "Is that the guy from Gossip Girl? From Fringe? Where do I know the German from Oregon? Oh, The OC, of course."

Ostiose Vagrant said...

Let me be the umpteenth person to say that the shots of the drop were awe-inspiring. But in this first go around for me, at this stage the characters besides Wynters and maybe Speirs have not been given the opportunity to establish themselves.

Alex Mullane said...

I watched this show when it was aired on BBC2 years ago, but I was probably a little too young to gain a full appreciation of everything that was going on, although I loved every second of it. There's also the fact that I remember virtually nothing about the plot or characters, so I'm essentially watching this as a newb.

So I decided to rewatch it so I could participate in these discussions.

From the first moment I saw the title sequence again, I honestly nearly welled up just thinking about what these men went through. I have a feeling this series is going to be a lot harder to watch the second time around. When the man at the beginning on this second episode choked up talking about the landing... Man. Heavy.

One question I have... And I'm asking it here because I suspect I'll more likely get a response in this newer thread than in the Currahee one...

In episode 1, during the scene where we see our heroes in a plane getting trained in how to jump, the scene is interspersed with our heroes gathered around on the ground being lectured by a man on how to jump, saying that "gravity will do the rest" etc etc.

Who on Earth is the actor giving the lesson/speech, and why do i know him? He didn't get a character name, to my knowledge, and so I couldn't find him on IMDB but i know his face and it's driving me insane. If anyone can tell me who he is or what he has been in I will be eternally greatful.

Look forward to contributing in more detail for future episodes (I've just come out of an exam, and am very tired)

Andrew said...

I'm watching Band of Brothers for the first time, so I can't quite keep track of all of the characters, yet, but this was a powerful hour of TV. Between Winters parachuting out of the plane amidst the AA fire with all of those other paratroopers, you get a sense of just how massive an undertaking D-Day was, that is easy to gloss over when reading about it in books. And the chaos of the assault on the German position Brecourt Manor translated well on film.

Thanks for doing this rewind watch, because I don't know if or when I would have otherwise gotten around to watching this miniseries.

mjmercado said...

Damian Lewis as Winters just owns this episode. Some of my favorite "little moments" are:

- "We're not lost, Private. We're in Normandy"

- "It's been a day of firsts...wouldn't you say Guarnere?"

Winters never hesitates, always knows what to do next, and addresses the tension with Wild Bill at the end with such subtlety.

Sister T said...

On Nixon not being a part of the combat action. I felt his character was very effective as a sort of one man Greek Chorus for the action and for Winters's emotions. (Also, really good for exposition).

Kimberly said...

This is my third viewing and it's so much easier to keep track of everyone this time around. My favorite moments are the little things, like "What's he doing out of the trench?" and Hall trying to slide in with Easy Co. when Winters is handing out assignments because he knows these guys are the best. Thanks so much for doing this, Alan. I can never find enough people to talk to about this series.

Katie B said...

Alan - I'm a regular reader of your blog. I've always wanted to watch BoB - this is gave a good opportunity.

I have one small(?) request - for those of use who are watching for the first time, could you slow your pacing of the blogs a bit? I don't know that I have time to watch and episode every 2 days. I like to read the comments as they come in and if I'm late watching the episode (I haven't watched ep 2 yet), then the conversation is already over.

Katie B said...

Alan - I'm a regular reader of your blog. I've always wanted to watch BoB - this is gave a good opportunity.

I have one small(?) request - for those of use who are watching for the first time, could you slow your pacing of the blogs a bit? I don't know that I have time to watch and episode every 2 days. I like to read the comments as they come in and if I'm late watching the episode (I haven't watched ep 2 yet), then the conversation is already over.

Eugene Freedman said...

Winters never hesitates, always knows what to do next, and addresses the tension with Wild Bill at the end with such subtlety.

I don't think that Winters always knows what to do next. But, I think that once he's made up his mind, he doesn't hesitate. He puts his men and himself into action to carry out that decision immediately and without second guessing. It's easier to correct a problem once it occurs than to delay and lose the time it takes to make sure the decision is absolutely correct.

Alan Sepinwall said...

for those of use who are watching for the first time, could you slow your pacing of the blogs a bit?

The pace is going to be the pace, Katie -- and it won't necessarily be one every two days. As I mentioned last week, this wasn't a project I was looking to take on, and I don't really have time for it, but if I can basically find windows to write, right now, while it's all still fresh in my head, I can power through without messing up too much of the rest of my schedule. If I had to guess, I imagine it'll be, on average, two posts a week -- which seems fitting, since, as I recall, HBO aired two episodes a week (back to back on Sundays) in the original run back in '01.

Hatfield said...

Ok, so I am completely engrossed by this after the second episode. Hearing that they were shown back to back originally makes sense, as this first pair seems better together. Speirs is indeed interesting, but that last charge got everyone but him killed, right? And if he went over and shot all those prisoners, how was there not fallout from that? I'm sure that can't really be answered without giving it away, but it had me distracted.

I will say that I'm not having any trouble following people. I may not know all their names yet, but I've got the faces down pretty well. If you're watching the DVDs, though, there is a handy feature with each episode called the Field Guide, and it has mini character profiles for the prominent characters from each episode. It's not perfect, but it helps.

For something that you're doing in a supposed tossed-off manner, these two posts have been very detailed and interesting, Alan, and I thank you for giving me a reason to stop putting off watching this.

chris said...

One thing I think gets overlooked is the fact that the action at Brecourt was Dick Winters first time leading men in actual combat. That he did so well his first time out that his actions are still taught at West Point is just amazing.

That he wasn't awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on D-Day is equally disappointing.

jcpbmg said...

This is my first time watching the series but I totally agree that Settle's character is hard to take seriously (especially after GG)

Also for some reason I keep thinking back to the flashback episodes of Mad Men that showed Draper during WWII-- maybe it just has to do with the similarity of their names (Dick Winters vs Dick Whitman). Anyone else running into this issue...

Anonymous said...

I believe Don Draper was actually in Korea. Sterling was in WW2 and holds it over the younger guys' (not just Draper) heads.

Heather K said...

I watched 7 of these eps in a row non-stop while finishing the other three the next day over a winter break during grad school (my brother had gotten them for Christmas the year before and would not loan them out of the house), and I was blown away at how powerful the story(ies) was (were). But I also recall that there is no way I would have survived day one if a friend who was way familiar with them hadn't come over to watch it with me. I definitely needed him to answer all my questions that inevitably started, "Was that the guy who. . ?" I would imagine IMDB on a laptop nearby would be helpful too.

jlf said...

I heard this very interesting story on NPR this morning about the French children left behind after their German soldier fathers were shipped away from Normandy. Thought it would be a great tie in to Day of Days from a slightly different perspective.


tinmann0715 said...

Random thoughts:

In 2001, on September 9th HBO aired episodes #1 & #2 back-to-back. They did this because they feared that if the purists watched episode #1 with its buildup to D-Day they may not come back next week. HBO wanted to give them their instant gratification. Two days later was 9/11 and HBO seriously considered pulling the remaining episodes feeling that it was not an appropriate time to glorify war.
There is an online petition on www.majordickwinters.com for him to receive the Medal of Honor, H.R. 796. I believe it may come up for a vote this session.
A least 3 actors from this series have starred in ER. Spiers, Webster and Spiers. I think I am forgetting one other.
The military was different in the 40's. Spiers' conduct wasn't all that unique. Remember, Sink threatened to shoot all the mutinous NCO's in episode 1. Plus, shooting POW's happened multiple times on D-Day, on both sides.
Winters' narrative. Remember it. It all ties up nicely in the last episode and it will frame up the entires series perfectly, but the trick is to remember this narrative.

tinmann0715 said...

I hate making mistakes. Sorry for not prrofreading prior to hitting 'Send'.

HBO showed #1 & #2 back-to-back. The remaining episodes were shown one Sunday at a time.
3 actors on ER: Spiers, Malarky and Webster.

Carolyn said...

I really liked this episode. It took me a couple takes to figure out Matthew Settle was the Gossip Girl dad, but once I did I was impressed that he managed to be so different from Rufus Humphrey (especially as I think I am your sole commenter who didn't love Schwimmer's performance in Ep 1, just could NOT separate him from the few times Ross tried (unsuccessfully) to be tough).

Carolyn said...

whoops, hit submit too soon:

also wanted to follow up on your comment about the unexpected narration: very distracting! made me stop and go wait, they didn't voiceover ep 1, don't tell me... hopefully that was just a random thing in this ep!

Elizabeth Carter said...

This one is at #5 for me for many resons
1) I love the opening scene and the portrial of the the mens fears. The part where the camera is on Guarnere, he did a fantastic job showing the horrible fear going through their minds.
2) I must agree that it did get alittle confusing after the jump. Personally, I think it could use some more detail.
3) The scene that stood out the most, was when they were taking out those German batteries firing on Utah beach. It really shows how smart, well timed and bad-ass Winters is.
4)It falls at #5 because of the way it flowed. It wasnt lined up and well flowing as it should have been, like I said before, it could use more explaining.
These are just my opinions, so if you but this one up top, sweet, if not, I guess you agree with me.

Ref said...

To anyone finding this blog:

Please do yourself a favor and read the books by the Easy Company guys (Winters, Malarkey,Guarnere & Heffron, and David Webster's book from the 1950's. It will great ly expand your appreciation!