Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Pacific, "Part Eight": Jarhead in love

A review of tonight's "The Pacific" coming up just as soon as I make a table appear out of thin air...

After three harrowing episodes focusing on Sledge's time on Peleliu, "The Pacific" takes a sharp right turn, leaving Sledge and Snafu behind for a bit (other than a brief cameo at the top of the episode) to spend the hour on John Basilone, who hasn't been a major part of the miniseries for a month.

I can see how that would be jarring to some. "The Pacific" has been a more sprawling, less tightly-focused miniseries than "Band of Brothers" was, but that's been by design, as the creative team has tried to show a broader picture of the Pacific theater than they did of the Atlantic. So that means not only bouncing from character to character as we cover different island conflicts - here with Basilone being killed during the early hours of the Iwo Jima invasion - but also showing how different kinds of characters were affected by the war.

Where Sledge was a naive kid emotionally unprepared for what he saw on Peleliu, and where Leckie was a cynic and iconoclast, Basilone was a career military man (first in the Army, then the Marines) who knew what he was getting into when he went to war, and had no regrets about the fighting, the command structure, or any other part of being in the Corps. Given the man that we saw in the early episodes, and the brief, frustrated glimpses we got of him on his war bond tour, it's not a surprise that Basilone would have declined promotion, a cushy detail or an outright discharge in favor of going back into action. But it was still moving to watch his journey, from bored and out-of-shape celebrity to misunderstood drill sergeant to inspiring leader of men, and to see that even though he didn't survive Iwo Jima, he was every bit as brave and resourceful there as he was on Guadalcanal.

But this hour is as much the story of Lena Riggi as it is of Basilone.

Unlike Stella, Leckie's Australian girlfriend Stella from the third episode, Riggi was entirely real: the woman Basilone fell for, courted and married before shipping back out to the Pacific. So where Stella ultimately was more symbol than character, Riggi gets to be both a stand-in for the many women who lost loved ones in the war as well as her own person, well-played by Annie Parisse in a nice romantic duet with Jon Seda. While the story hit some familiar war movie beats (Basilone and Riggi even huddle up on a wave-swept beach in a scene evoking the iconic kiss in "From Here to Eternity"), the idea of them as kindred spirits - fellow non-coms who feel most at home in the military, and who fully understand the dangers and responsibilities that come with the uniform and the stripes - made it feel unique to them, and compelling.

Now, by the time Basilone pushed his superiors to let him be a regular Marine again, a lot of time had passed since Guadalcanal. Other famous heroes of the war had emerged, and while Basilone still didn't have to buy himself a drink anywhere he went, it's understandable that one of the two young men who form the foundation of Basilone's new squad wouldn't have heard of him, and that both might at first think the hero of Guadalcanal was overdoing it in training them.

But as we see when everyone lands on Iwo Jima (in another Hell-on-earth sequence to rival the airfield crossing on Peleliu), Basilone knew what he was doing, both in terms of training the men and in terms of what he'd need to do to survive. That he died doesn't mean he was wrong - as he told JP back in the second episode, life and death in battle is often a matter of luck and inches - and even in the moments leading to his death, he was still thinking clearly, helping others and not blinking in the face of an unbelievable onslaught.

And for all his heroism and celebrity, the final shot of the Iwo Jima sequence - with the camera pulling up to show Basilone lying among so many other dead men - was a potent reminder of the hundreds upon thousands of less famous Americans died under similar circumstances to the great John Basilone, and how many of them left their own version of Lena behind.

Some other thoughts:

• When Google is not your friend: after Anna Torv turned up in the fifth episode as Virginia Grey, I decided to do some web-searching to find out more about the real Grey. One of my first stops was her IMDb biography, which told me, "During her participation in WWII bond drives, she developed a close relationship with John Basilone, US Marine Medal of Honor winner, who was later killed on Iwo Jima." Whoops. And that, boys and girls, is one of the reasons I've been so strict about trying to avoid spoiling the fates of Basilone, Sledge and Leckie.

• There are, of course, many books about John Basilone. The one I've been perusing for background detail has been James Brady's new one.

• I liked how the gravel falling on Basilone's face after he was shot resembled the pencil shavings that go flying throughout the miniseries' opening credits sequence.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

Basilone wasn't shot...he was killed by mortar fire and died instantly...would have liked to see them stay faithful to that.

jrix68 said...

Thought it was one of the most powerful episodes of television that I can rememer watching. It's not BoB but I've learned to enjoy this series for what it is.

I, too, got an accidential spoiler on Basilone's death, but it didn't make the last 10 minutes any easier....Once it was finally over I consciously had to make sure I was remembering to keep breathing. Thought it was well done.

Unknown said...

Actually Hugh Ambrose did research and said he died of small arms fire, not mortar fire that was widely reported. At least that's what he said in his book The Pacific, the companion to the min-series. And seeing as he was the history adviser, it makes sense that's how he dies in the episode

Toeknee said...

I didn’t enjoy the episode as much as everyone else. The first 45 minutes were really hit and miss. Did we really need to see those 2 minutes with Sledge? Maybe it’s setting the stage for something else (do we care that Jay got transferred? Would it really be shocking if Snafu got hepatitis?) , but it didn’t seem like a particularly useful scene. I thought the whole Basilone stateside story went on too long. Some of the dialogue was too writer-ly (the general saying, “You make me proud to be a Marine”; Basilone’s “It’s amazing what can happen over a cup of coffee”). They went a little overboard in driving the “Basilone is a hero” point home. And exactly what changed Lena’s mind to prompt her to accept his invitation on a date to Clancy’s (?) after seeming completely disinterested in their prior encounters?

Without knowing Basilone’s fate beforehand, as soon as the battle scene started, I thought, Oh, that’s why we spent so much time on Basilone’s story, he’s gonna get killed (much like on Lost, when the character who was the subject of the flashbacks ended up dying – Shannon, Boone, Charlie). The entire battle scene was completely horrific – it’s amazing anyone survived that – but I spent the whole time thinking, is he gonna die now? I don’t know if this was intentional but the portrayal of Basilone was very reminiscent of the portrayal of Dick Winters – the “follow me”s and the urging of men to keep moving forward. His death was very sad, so I guess in that sense the episode succeeded in getting me to care for both Bailsone and Lena.

Maybe I’ll enjoy the episode more on a rewatch, but I was mostly bored with this one.

Unknown said...

When I open this site and I read that full information so I like it....I need to write a report about 5 plants and 5 animals that live in the inter-tidal zone of the pacific ocean.
Force Factor

Anonymous said...

I think I would have liked to see them put the Basilone stuff last week into the beginning of this week.

Watching this again, it seems like all three characters have their own arcs.

Sledge is trapped in Full Metal Jacket.

Leckie seems like a refugee from Catch 22.

I'm not sure what Basilone's story calls back to, but it feels the most tragic: the war hero who goes back because it's his duty, then pays the ultimate price.

dez said...

Without knowing Basilone’s fate beforehand, as soon as the battle scene started, I thought, Oh, that’s why we spent so much time on Basilone’s story, he’s gonna get killed

Yeah, the narrative telegraphed it pretty handily, but as you said, his death was still sad.

I don't understand how anyone could see what Basilone had seen and want to go back. What a very brave man he must have been.

renton said...

The HBO website also isn't your friend. There was something on it that spoiled it for me.

Michael said...

And earlier tonight, a friend posted a photo on Facebook of a marker in Raritan NJ (Basilone's home town) at the Basilone Memorial Bridge. The marker (from 1951) says that he died at Iwo Jima, which I hadn't known.

Watching those battle scenes is nothing short of astonishing. I can't fathom how those men must have felt in combat. Neither can I fathom how they filmed it for the show.

Fortran said...

Maybe I'm just a history nerd or something, but I guess I'm utterly surprised there was anyone in the US who *didn't* know John Basilone died at Iwo Jima.

He was one of the most famous names of WWII, so I just figured everyone knew that he wasn't going to survive this series without a major rewrite of history.

Anonymous said...

Only "history nerds" would have known who Basilone was.

The 18-25 generation never heard of him until the miniseries started.

TinMann0715 said...

I knew Basilone died on Iwo Jima, and I think the episode was laid out thinking that everyone else knew too. All of the build-up, the courting, the romance, marriage and honeymoon was an exercise to fill your heart, and then to rip it out on that beach. We saw three sides to Basilone this episode. The man weighed down by his CMOH, the inspiring Drill Instructor who could do everything he taught, and the leader on the battlefield. His "Survivor's Guilt" drove him back to combat and he was as heroic on Iwo Jima as he was on The Canal. I am left with the question, similar to the statement he said to his little brother in an earlier episode, "Did he feel like he had to prove something?"
RIP John Basilone

Joe Cobb said...

I dunno about Mr. History Professor...

but several first hand accounts say that a mortar hit at the feet of Basilone sending shrapnel into his groin, neck and arm.

Anonymous said...

Now it's pretty clear why the writers didn't take any time in basic training at the beginning of the series. They covered basic training telling the story of Basilone's death. Iwo Jima was such a hell hole. It's truly amazing to compare the fighting in the Pacific vs Europe. If you look at some of the toughest battles in BOB like the attack Foy compared to Iwo Jimo, it's so much worse in the Pacific. BOB even alluded to this in one of the last eps when the boys were watching clips of the fighting in the Pacific.

Hollywoodaholic said...

The moment where Basilone is dying and the machine gun crew could retrieve him by disobeying his previous order to stay put was particularly moving, as we watched their faces struggling with what to do to help him.

The look on Basilone's face as he watched them hold their ground revealed an almost smile of relief as they stuck to their orders, and he bled out.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I didn't get on first watching that the machine gun crew was conflicted about going after him but it makes sense.

Toeknee - The only reason I can think that they showed Jay's transfer to the HQ company is because in one of Sledge's chapters on Okinawa there's a very significant incident involving an unnamed guy who had been transferred to HQ company. I'm guessing it will be used in 9 or 10.

Sonia said...

I live very close to Raritan so I had known all along when John Basilone died. For me, it did not diminish the emotional impact of this episode. There was so much more to it than Basilone wants back in the war, but falls in love, gets married and gets killed. It was very well done and very respectful towards this great war hero.

I wonder how crowded the Basilone parade will be this year?

Anonymous said...

For those of you who aren't "History Nuts" it might be important to note that Basilone won the Navy Cross for his efforts on Iwo Jima. He's the ONLY person to ever win both the Medal of Honor AND Navy Cross.

Michael said...

@fortran - I'm in my 40s, I used to live in Edison NJ (where there is at least one Basilone Memorial Bridge) when I was a kid, I'm well-educated, and I think reasonably well-informed about WWII history. And I had never heard of him until this series.

In fact, outside of Audie Murphy and Alvin York, the only other MOH winner I can name is Roy Benavides (from Vietnam War) because he was local.

WV: undent, which is what you do to fix a car ding.

Anonymous said...

Hugh Ambrose got a hold of a copy of a "death certificate" for Basilone that apparently says three gunshot wounds.

Anonymous said...

"I don’t know if this was intentional but the portrayal of Basilone was very reminiscent of the portrayal of Dick Winters – the “follow me”s and the urging of men to keep moving forward."

I think it was intentional but was done in the sense to (accurately) represent that they were both good leaders who led they're men from the front.

I also agree that it was pretty obvious that he was going to die, but the facts are what they are and I can't imagine them doing it any differently. This part of his story was the courtship of his wife, his volunteering to go back and his actions in battle/death.

I think the past 4 episodes stack up against any 4 episode stretch in BOB.

Matt said...

Great article from the Southern Pines, NC local paper on one of the gentlemen who provided the interviews at the beginning.

My only thoughts were that knowing Basilone was going to his doom in Iwo Jima made the honeymoon scene even more ominous. It kept me on the edge of my seat during the battle, just waiting for the hammer to drop.

Alan Sepinwall said...

When I related the Google story to Bruce McKenna, by the way, and asked him if he expected/wanted people to go in knowing Basilone's story, he said:

"I don't want them to know, because most people won't know. Most people don't care. All the Marines and military aficionados will know, but I'd like them to just go in and be shocked. Even the ones that know his story will not know the story of him and his wife."

Anonymous said...

A+ episode, F- title on Sepinwall's part ("Jarhead in love?!"). Part 8 was disarmingly harrowing and heartwrenching. Please Alan, change that title. It's supremely insulting to trivialize this episode, as well as the real-life story of John & Lena Basilone, as if it's some crappy generic Nicholas Sparks book.

Anonymous said...

The best episode so far not that I think it was any great TV (ooohh the dialogues again and the acting ...baaaaaad).

But at least this time I cared for the heroes (and I knew Basilone KIA in Iwozima).
Through all the cliche scenes they managed to make me care about Lena and Basilone. I even felt this time the impact of his loss on his men.

I vote this Snafu character for the most annoying ever on tv. Or is it the actor?
I guess he was killing Japanese by annoying them to death.

Anonymous said...

I think it was a remarkable hour of television, moving from the feeling of shame and guilty to heroism in a really gentle and delicate way. As much as i liked the henrymillerian charachter of Leckie, I have to say that The Pacific probably should have been exclusively about Sledge and Basilone. Anyways, the direction during the battle of Iwo Jima i think is outstanding and all in all the episodes was the best until now.

patrick247 said...

I have to disagree entirely with anonymous @4:29. I think that Snafu is one of the most layered and best characters on the entire show. He can vacillate from totally psychotic and completely muted to the horrors around him (i.e. stealing teeth, tossing pebbles into the skull), to a loyal and caring friend and comrade. His and Sledge's relationship I find one of the strongest of the series, and if one of them dies, it will resonate with me. His dazed expression and eyes that seem to just be empty from the war, work so well with his slow drawl. Big fan of that actor's portrayal of that character.

Anonymous said...

no offense mate, good acting is not talking like a stoned mf junkie.

Snafu as he is portrayed in the series, gives me the impression of a psychotic disturbed person that happened to go to war. Not as someone that has been changed by war.

Anonymous said...

to add, I just think the whole approach of the role from the actor and the director is wrong. They watched too many vietnam war movies ;)

Anonymous said...

here's a link to Lena's obit. She never remarried:

DB Cooper said...

As I said last week, Snafu seems "layered" or "pyschotic," depending on your assessment, because the producers decided to merge about 8 Marines together, and graft them on to Sledge's real-life mortar buddy.

And as I also said, in doing so, they lose the universality of the horror, and let the viewer dismiss Snafu as a nutter.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't it be "Jarheads in love"? Lena was just as much a marine as John, damnit.

Stuart Matthews said...

My wife and I made a deal last week. I agreed to watch one (1) episode of Desperate Housewives, in return for her watching one (1) episode of The Pacific.

Our tastes in TV differ, obviously ... but from what I've seen so far of this brilliant production, the episode of the Pacific I would recommend to the missus would be No. 8.

Episode 8 has a hunky leading man in Basilone, a warming give-and-forth love story between John and Lena Basilone, some humour. Mrs "Stuart" should like it even though she won't know who the hell Sledge is ... I merely suggested to her that she should skip the scenes after the landing on Iwo Jima because it is very hard viewing.

I'm not sure whether I gave away the plot to her that Basilone dies, just that it's going to be tough to watch.

Anyway, I'll be on Desperate Housewives duty at some point this week while the missus watches The Pacific Episode 8.

Hopefully, she'll last longer than Basilone does.

TinMann0715 said...

As I watched this episode I also watched the clock and realized that Iwo Jima was only going to be a small part of this. That bothered me some because Iwo Jima was every bit as tough for the Marines as Peleliu. There was an airfield they had to battle every inch for, Mt Suribachi and its complex defense system; and of course, the flag! I then remembered that Iwo Jima was covered by Clint Eastwood's movies a few years ago, and with Basilone dead there was no one else for the series to follow on the island. BTW, 27 CMOH were awarded to Marines(23) and Navy(4)as a result of this battle.
This series has been in lockstep with BoB for the past few episodes now. Episode #6 was intense. Episode #7 was the pinnacle, the "Breaking Point" for both. Episode #8 was humanistic reprieve. Episode #9 for BoB was the delicate matter of the Holocaust. For this series Episode #9 will be faced with the delicate matter of the innocent civilian casualties inflicted by both sides on Okinawa. If this topic is done right, and true to history, I anticipate that it will be something we have never seen before on TV, and should have the same impact on us as watching the first 30 minutes of SPR for the very first time. Message: "War is Hell!"
I already told my wife she can't watch until I see it first, just so I can check to see if she can handle it. I hope that I can.

Anonymous said...

I had never heard of Basilone before this series started. When he was awarded the CMOH in the third episode, I looked him up to see if the character was based on a real person and that's when I learned that he died in 1945. Therefore, while watching this episode, I knew what it was leading up to, and I actually think that made it more powerful. I almost started crying during that scene with John and Lena on the beach, because I knew that they weren't going to have much time together.

I suppose it would have been more shocking had I not known going in, but I don't think the scenes with Lena would have been as powerful.

Anonymous said...

Wow, TinMan and Stuart, I hope you're joking about your wives! Women are tough, they always have been. We're not some delicate doilies, ya know. It's a depiction of historical events. They can't handle that, REALLY?

I just think that American culture STILL puts women down in this way, like we're mentally weaker and can't handle basic life issues. We're not weaker than men mentally and if your wives have bought into this 'girly' women and kids first mentality, then that's not only retro-19th century, it's just plain sad.

The Pacific is terrific. I like most of what I've watched. BTW, I'm a history major and considered quite feminine by people who know me. FWIW

TinMann0715 said...

Anon, I believe it is you who is stereotyping. My wife does not like blood and gore, and she is especially sensitive to violence against infants and small children. The previews for Episode#9 hint towards having some of that in it.

Anonymous said...


I'm hardly stereotyping b/c what you just described is typical of a lot of women. It happens to be the truth - for some strange reason, a lot of women can't handle what you described - blood and gore being depicted nor violence towards children. But what does she expect happened in WWII and also what still goes on in the rest of the world. Gheesh, the world is not Disneyland.

policywonk said...

Different women handle their reactions to war, blood and gore in different ways. Some simply decide to avoid it, for reasons best known to themselves that have nothing to do with lack of nerve. My Mama and her family (much younger brother, married sister with husband, grandma) ran through Eastern Europe during the war, stuck between Russians and Nazis, hoping to land in an Allied zone and dodging Allied bombs, and ended up living in barracks after the war ended, waiting to emigrate -- and they saw plenty of death and destruction. Mama was a stoic and righteous: she dragged along a little girl who posed as her youngest sister but was young enough and my mom old enough that she could have been my mom's daughter (distantly related to some cousins by marriage, AND the little girl was Jewish and had to pose as Catholic). Decades later, after living in this country for years, Mama still wouldn't watch war movies -- not because she had weak nerves, but because she'd seen more than enough during the war to last her a lifetime.

Oh, and BTW, those aren't pencil shavings in the opening credits: that's charcoal dust blowing around from the artist using a charcoal stick too aggressively to sketch the scenes.

Anonymous said...

Hugh Ambrose conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with Basilone and wrote that Basilone died of heartbreak.

Stuart Matthews said...

Hi Anon ... I am sorry if my post seemed like I was being demeaning to my wife. I wasn't. I know she is tough; I have seen her give birth so I know she is.

As TinMan said though, some people don't like blood/gore/violence as part of their TV experience, and my wife is one of them. I don't like drivel and inane screaming and shouting in TV, it's why I don't watch "EastEnders" for example.

It's just a matter of taste, and I didn't mean to make a distinction about women not having the stomach to watch things like The Pacific. It's just that my wife prefers not to watch things like this. It's her choice.

Just like she chose to marry me. Lucky me. Happy I didn't end up with some other girl. ;)

Anonymous said...

Interesting back-and-forth about what women can handle. I'm a middle aged woman and would much rather watch combat than a crime show in which women are stalked, raped, beaten, etc. I know I will never be in combat. The other is too easily imaginable.

I've always read lots of WWI and II history and knew I couldn't miss this series. My husband is a Vietnam vet (Marines) so I'm the one who watches to make sure he's OK during the combat scenes. (He was an aviator but did a tour with the infantry as a forward air controller.)

Alan, I only watch a few shows (Mad Men, FNL) but your blog and the viewers' comments enrich the experience so much.

Nicole said...

I normally avoid torture porn movies and other excessively gory horror shows because they aren't real and it's usually violence perpetrated against female victims, which I find disturbing, especially because I wonder who takes the time to think up these things. However, I will watch any war movie that is based in reality because they are normally done with class and frankly, these soldiers lived through this hell, the least I can do is watch a fictionalized version of it on film. Since I thought Band of Brothers was well done, I did not have any concerns about the combat scenes in The Pacific.

I can see where Anonymous was peeved by the comments of watching the episodes for the wives because it did come off as akin to a parent watching something to make sure it's okay for a child. I realize that was not the intent, but not knowing the person behind the comment, it did seem condescending.

I also wonder if this is a generational thing because I don't think any of my female friends would hesitate to watch this mini-series or any other war movie having gone to see the Friday the 13th movies and Scream movies in late grade school and high school, and that stuff is much worse.

Lizzy Bee said...

Mrs Stuart here ... I don't usually watch action war dramas because they bore me to tears actually. War is men's menstural envy after all, and we all know the outcome - lots of people die unnecessarily. I'm no stereotype and my husband well knows that as he bows down to paint my toenails for me.

Stuart Matthews said...

Some really interesting and valid points on women/war films/feminism/viewing "censorship" above ...

Props to Tinman for looking after his wife's aversion to blood & guts; likewise to crypticpuzzler for respecting her Vietnam vet husband's feelings as well. Nice point as well, cryptic, that the stalker stuff is all too potentially real, whereas most of us will never see combat.

And of course, my lovely wife Lizzy Bee was spot-on about the unneccesary deaths in war and had a good metaphor -- war as men's menstrual envy (ie, men need to shoot each other to bleed). True feminist, my Lizzy Bee, but I prefer the analogy that war is men's "penis envy". (ie, this guy has a bigger country, more money, bigger d--- than me). Such things always lead to useless bloodshed among men.

Like my wife, I hate war. But unlike her, I find the war genre extremely compelling because they deal with so many other substantial themes - unbelievable courage, sacrifice, loss, teamwork (ie, male bonding), and overcoming huge obstacles. I don't just see the inevitable body count at the end. "The Pacific" is scoring massive points on all counts.

And yes, I'm getting the toenail polish ready for my very feminine wife. What colour this week, m'lady? ;)