'The Pacific' unflinchingly visceral on war
By Chuck Barney
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
With each passing day, more World War II veterans are dying, taking with them valuable shards of history. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks keep doing what they can to ensure that the soldiers burn brightly in our memories.
The Hollywood heavyweights who famously joined forces on "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers" return to the combat zone as executive producers of HBO's "The Pacific," an awe-inspiring 10-part, $200 million miniseries that recalls America's gruesome war against Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Unlike the masterful "Band of Brothers," which followed a single company of Army paratroopers from Normandy into Germany, this Emmy-ready companion piece tracks the journeys of three Marines — Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello) and John Basilone (Jon Seda) — as they battle the Japanese on a series of remote specks of turf they'd never heard of: Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa.
As the saga unfolds, their paths occasionally intersect, but each has his own story to tell. Leckie, a budding journalist, pens contemplative letters to a woman back home he barely knows. Sledge, the idealistic son of wealthy parents, is at first kept out of the war by a heart condition, but eventually finds himself trapped in an existence more hellish than he ever imagined. Basilone, a former boxer, commits a stunning act of bravery that turns him into an instant hero who is considered by his government to be more useful as a celebrity pitch man for war bonds on the home front than a fighter in the trenches.
With this multipronged approach, "The Pacific," at times, feels less cohesive than "Band of Brothers." And though it is packed with high-caliber performances, this cast doesn't quite match its predecessor — man for man — in on-screen magnetism. One notable exception is Rami Malek, who as a brash, droopy-eyed warrior nicknamed "Snafu" is a major scene-stealer.
In other ways, however, "The Pacific" trumps "Brothers." The thunderous battle scenes, for example, might be the most harrowingly visceral ever put on film. They plunge us deep into a frenetic chaos of noise, blood, anxiety and human carnage until we're practically gasping for breath. The film's multiple directors seem determined not to spare our feelings, but intensify them. This is not a production for the squeamish.
In that same vein, the filmmakers also pay meticulous, unflinching attention to the ghastly conditions of jungle warfare: Torrential rain, brutal heat, dysentery, malaria, rats, maggots and rotting corpses all around.
The physical and mental toll is palpable and you can't help but wonder how you might have fared if forced to endure such nightmarish misery in the name of freedom.
Although the miniseries focuses on a conflict waged more than a half-century ago, it carries a chilling, modern-day resonance. The Japanese fought with a fanatical, self-sacrificial fervor that, at times, resorted to suicide bombings.
Like a good novel, "The Pacific" tightens its grip on you with each chapter. Some of the most emotionally powerful moments come in Part 9, directed by Tim Van Patten ("The Sopranos"). It finds an exhausted Sledge and his comrades on Okinawa, where they cope with thorny moral dilemmas heightened by the presence of civilians. It's one of the most beautifully crafted — and heart-wrenching — hours of television you'll ever see.
As its lofty production price tag suggests, "The Pacific" is bursting with epic sprawl and extravagance. But like any effective film of its kind, it also has an intimacy that will have you bonding with its characters and caring deeply about their fates.
Spielberg, Hanks and company have once again managed to delve beyond the mythic layers of WW II to find a beating heart. Ultimately, that's their greatest gift to the Greatest Generation.