HBO // 2001 // 600 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // December 2nd, 2002
Easy Company, Second Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
Based on the book by acclaimed historian Stephen Ambrose, Band of Brothers is an intense, moving, astonishing, but above all, honest picture of ordinary men, transformed into elite men of valor, who did what needed to be done to defeat the great evil of their day. Encased in a nifty collectible tin, blessed with first-rate picture and sound, and with a disc of extras, this is a bundle of joy to gladden the hearts of the DVD-buying public.
At Camp Toccoa in the sweltering Georgia summer heat of 1942, Easy Company begins training under the petty harshness of Lt. Herbert Sobel (David Schwimmer). After earning their jump wings, Easy Company shifts across the Atlantic to England to continue their training. However, as Easy Company prepares to drop into Hitler's Fortress Europe on D-Day, the conflict between Lt. Sobel and platoon leader Lt. Dick Winters (Damian Lewis) escalates, forcing regimental commander Col. Robert Sink (Dale Dye) to take action.
* "Day of Days"
In the chaos of the nighttime paradrop into Normandy, France, Easy Company, like its sister airborne units, is scattered far and wide across the enemy terrain. With newly selected company commander Lt. Meehan (Jason O'Mara) missing in action, Lt. Winters tries to gather the men of Easy together, fighting small battles along the way. The landing at Utah Beach is still in doubt, so Lt. Winters takes a small cadre of stragglers in a desperate battle to knock out a vital German artillery position.
The shock of D-Day overwhelms Pvt. Albert Blithe (Marc Warren), who finally is able to rejoin his comrades. Lacking in fighting spirit, Blithe is encouraged by Lt. Winters and other platoon leaders to find inner strength to stand and fight. Blithe is able to join in the Easy Company attack on Carentan, whose capture will allow American and British armored forces to from Utah and Omaha beaches to link up. Aided by Allied tanks, but suffering from German armor as well, Easy Company has little time to rest before being called back to England to prepare for their next major operation.
As part of the overly ambitious Operation Market-Garden, the largest airborne drop ever takes place over occupied Holland, involving the 101st Airborne Division (the Screaming Eagles), the 82nd Airborne Division, and the British 1st Airborne Division (the Red Devils). Easy Company, having absorbed replacement soldiers, liberates the town of Eindhoven, to the joy of most Dutch civilians but to the sorrow of a few collaborators. Success is short-lived when Easy's advance runs into a strong German infantry and tank counter-attack and for the first time must retreat. Surveying the grim landscape, intelligence officer Capt. Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston) tells his friend Lt. Winters that Market-Garden is a failure.
Market-Garden having failed, Allied forces must now defend a narrow salient under heavy German attack from all sides. In an astonishing display of luck and bravery, Lt. Winters personally leads Easy in an attack against vastly superior numbers. Promoted by Col. Sink to battalion executive officer, Lt. Winters chafes at his administrative tasks and frets at handing over the leadership of Easy Company. A break from combat is short-lived when German troops break through Allied lines in the Ardennes Forest. Ill-clothed and ill-equipped, short of food, ammunition, and medical supplies, Easy Company and the rest of the 101st Airborne Division are thrown into the snowy darkness at Bastogne to hold the lines.
As Easy Company digs foxholes in the cold Belgian countryside, medic Eugene Roe (Shane Taylor) scrounges for the barest of essential medical supplies. As Easy Company struggles against the brutal winter and the encircling German army, Eugene tends to the wounded. Taking the worst to an aid station in Bastogne itself, Roe finds a fleeting moment of solace with a beautiful Belgian nurse (Lucie Jeanne). Christmas is grim and cold, though Col. Sink congratulates Easy for holding the line as Gen. George Patton races to break the siege of Bastogne.
* "The Breaking Point"
The siege now over, Easy Company must begin the task of pushing back the German bulge. Amidst massive German artillery barrages, the men learn the truth of Pvt. Webster's observation that "artillery...takes the joy out of life." Easy loses several of its best men to grievous injuries, shocking Lt. Buck Compton (Neal McDonough). Worse, leadership of Easy Company is in the indifferent hands of Lt. Norman Dike (Peter O'Meara), much to the disgust of First Sergeant Carwood Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg). When Easy is called upon to seize the nearby town of Foy, Lt. Dike's inadequacies put Easy in danger until Lt. Ronald Spiers (Matthew Settle) steps forward to lead the men, much to Lipton's delight.
* "The Last Patrol"
Still shaken by their experiences at Bastogne, Easy Company moves into the French town of Haguenau. The war seems to be slowing down, so no one is terribly interested in risking himself, except the newly minted West Pointer, Lt. Hank Jones (Colin Hanks). A patrol into the German lines to seize prisoners for Capt. Nixon to interrogate is successful, but costly.
* "Why We Fight"
Life is far more comfortable for Easy Company in Germany than it ever has been. Nobody is shooting at them and they are sleeping in the relatively posh comforts of private homes (once their owners are evicted). All is not well, however. Captain Nixon takes part in an airborne operation that ends badly, leading to dark moods and alcohol abuse. Shortly after learning of the death of President Roosevelt, an Easy Company patrol makes a grisly discovery near Landsberg: a work camp, part of the sprawling Dachau complex.
Easy Company wins the race to the most coveted prize in the European Command -- Hitler's mountaintop "Eagle's Nest" in the town of Berchtesgaden -- before moving on to an equally picturesque posting in Austria. As the war draws to a close, violence is still a part of life, in the form of vigilante justice and drunken criminality. With little else to do, the men obsess over how many "points" they have, which determines how soon they can go home. A summary of post-war experiences of the men of Easy Company closes out the series.
This is the truth.
As told by the men who lived it, as committed to the page by Stephen Ambrose, this is a true story. If the situations seem familiar, the sentiments worn, or the words clichéd, that is the fault of the viewer's jaded expectations. War seems to create similar experiences and evoke similar sentiments for the men who are called upon to fight the battles. Even an Ivy League educated man like Pvt. Webster cannot believe that he yelled a seemingly trite "they got me!" when he is shot, yet he did. He was just one of many who were called upon to serve the United States in the fight against Hitler's evil, and who decided that they would not merely serve, but become the best soldiers they could be. They became the elite of the infantry, the new and untested military concept: airborne soldiers.
Band of Brothers tells the story of how men are trained for combat, how they fight their battles, and are in turn affected by them. We learn some aspects of their personalities and background, but these are secondary to the grim reality of their shared journey of courage and pain. While very few relished the prospect of combat, to a man they understood that the task before them had to be accomplished. They could not shirk their duty; they could not afford the luxury of self-doubt or introspective musing. Hitler and the original "Axis of Evil" simply had to be defeated, and for that, we all owe the men of Easy Company and the countless millions who also served a profound debt that we cannot begin to repay. However, we can honor the men, and their sacrifice, and so with Band of Brothers, we do.
The individual episodes of Band of Brothers all advance the story of Easy Company, but not always as you might expect. "Currahee" and "Day of Days" cover the harsh training and chaos of D-Day in familiar fashion. However, succeeding episodes illuminate different aspects of Easy Company's life. "Carentan" is really about Pvt. Blithe and his struggles with combat, "Replacements" is about how attrition affects Easy Company and how the replacements are received, "Crossroads" personifies Winters' combat leadership and fervent concern for his men, and "Bastogne" is how medic Roe finds equal measure of tragedy and respite behind the lines, treating the wounded.
Moving further along the list of episodes, soon you realize that Band of Brothers is not just a diary of the combat exploits of Easy Company. Anyone expecting a wall-to-wall Saving Private Ryan extravaganza is bound to be disappointed! When the combat action winds down after the bloody "The Breaking Point," the whisper of quiet drama speaks louder than a shout. Without the thunder of combat, the accumulated strain of nearly 150% casualties, the unspeakable blasphemy of the Holocaust, and the shared obsession with returning home have a greater impact. Again, the point is not to try and compete with something like Schindler's List, but rather to convey the impact by and on Easy Company.
As befits the immense collective endeavor that is Band of Brothers, the acting is so natural and uniformly excellent. Selected in part for their resemblances to the actual men of Easy Company, these men clearly took Dale Dye's "actor boot camp" to heart and realized the honor of portraying these men and this story. Few of these men are well known to the public, though you may recognize Ron Livingston (Office Space) and Neal McDonough (Star Trek: First Contact, Minority Report, Boomtown). Nevertheless, two men in particular are worthy of high praise. Donnie Wahlberg (The Sixth Sense, Boomtown) is so intense and focused as Carwood Lipton you can at least forgive his early years in the bubblegum boy-band New Kids on the Block. Likewise, even if you are an inveterate Friends hater, David Schwimmer's perfectly pitched turn as universally despised tyrant Lt. Sobel just may make you forget Friends (and his otherwise mediocre film career).
The anamorphic video appears to "suffer" from much the same techniques as did its cinematic big-brother Saving Private Ryan. Colors are restrained and desaturated, adding to the gritty feel of the handheld camera work. Aside from the intentional artistic choices, the video is otherwise of high quality. Commendable sharpness, no digital artifacting, and a pristine picture combine to present a quality putting many other DVD releases to shame.
The audio track is quite excellent, and thanks to HBO for giving us both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks! Take care in moving the volume level around, as the sound can go from difficult to hear whispers to cataclysmic artillery barrages very quickly. All channels get an active, smoothly panning workout, though the subwoofer punch is not as paint loosening as you might have expected. Finally, Michael Kamen's sweetly melancholy theme is a beautifully presented in the understated beginning to each episode. Particularly for a television series, this is some near-reference quality sound.
The eighty minute documentary "We Stand Alone Together" is a first class treasure trove of history, showing us the surviving men of Easy Company and telling us their reminisces in their own words. After watching it, you are impressed that Band of Brothers so accurately portrayed the complete experience of Easy Company. The thirty-minute "making of" featurette is of far higher quality than typical superficial PR fluff. Covering history, production, special effects, and all the facets of Band of Brothers, it is comprehensive though necessarily superficial. However, as compelling and fascinating as the other content may be, I bet you enjoy Ron Livingston's 55-minute video diary of actor boot camp the most! With a relaxed charm (as befits the hero of Office Space) and a dry sense of humor, Ron shows us what they went though to get a small taste of what real Easy Company men did. Though the work was tough, the actors seem to end up having so much fun that I bet Dale Dye could run these WWII fantasy camps for the public and make a whopping bundle.
Remembering who is who among the vast throng of characters, on top of keeping track of where Easy Company is located and what is going on, and understanding the military jargon is a tall order for any viewer. To address the difficulty of the sprawling scope of Band of Brothers, HBO has included extensive materials to give the DVD audience a helping hand. Each episode includes a plot summary and a "Field Guide" that includes sections on the troopers featured in that episode, a historical timeline, a map, a summary of military ranks, and a glossary. Located separately on the bonus disc are the episode previews, a photo gallery, and an eleven-minute video guide to many of the soldiers. The latter is simply a collection of clips from various episodes that illustrates each man.
Thrown in for good measure on the bonus disc is a three minute featurette about the premiere of Band of Brothers at a theatre near the Normandy beaches used on D-Day and attended by many of the surviving men of Easy Company. I can only imagine what it was like for those men to see this series at that place.
The overall package of extras feeds your appetite, but leaves you feeling still a little hungry. I wanted even more details on just how this production managed the tasks of an immense wardrobe and prop department, over 500 speaking parts, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, digital effects, and so on. The absence of Stephen Ambrose is a regrettable omission as well, especially now that he has died. He could have justified his own featurette or documentary, and I bet he would have made some compelling commentary tracks (particularly if you could get Tom Hanks or Dale Dye in there!).
The packaging of Band of Brothers has pluses and minuses. As noted above, the collectible tin is both stylish and extremely durable, and possibly the best of any box set. On the other hand, the accordion-style disc storage is not quite as useful as a more book-like method (as in the Babylon 5 first season set) and the cardboard stock should be coated (as the X-Files sets do) for increased durability. I admit these may be quibbles, but with a box set this good, you regret even the smallest items that detract from complete perfection.
Exquisite drama and compelling history constructed with masterful writers, producers, and filmmakers, Band of Brothers is worthy of every word of praise it has received to date. Show it to friends and family and teach it in the schools -- this is first-class all the way. Buy it ($120 list price), rent it, borrow it, or beg for it, but see it!
Acquitted in every way that I can acquit them! Defendants, go in peace, with the thanks of the Court.
Review content copyright © 2002 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2002 Winner: #4
* Top 100 Films: #75
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 600 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "We Stand Alone Together" Documentary
* Ron Livingston's Video Diary
* "Making of" Featurette
* Normandy Premiere Featurette
* Episode Previews
* Video Guide to Characters
* Episode Field Guides
* Photo Gallery
* DVD-ROM links
* Official Site
* 101st Airborne Division Association