HBO // 2010 // 540 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // October 25th, 2010
Hell was an ocean away.
In 2001, executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks brought historian Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers to the screen in a rigorously faithful 10-part miniseries on HBO. The show was about Easy Company of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army, an elite team of soldiers who cut a swath through the European theater of World War II, including action in Normandy on D-Day, a key role in Operation Market Garden, horrific wintertime combat around the Belgian town of Bastogne, and the capture of the Eagle's Nest, Adolph Hitler's personal chalet in Berchtesgaden. With its sprawl of memorable characters, intense depictions of combat, and accurate recreations of some of the most important battles of World War II, Band of Brothers is arguably the greatest war film ever made.
For years, there were persistent rumors that Spielberg and Hanks were planning a companion piece to Band of Brothers, a miniseries about America's fight against the Japanese Empire during World War II. Expectations couldn't have been higher when The Pacific finally premiered on HBO in the spring of 2010. Though the series isn't held in as high regard as its predecessor, it still earned critical raves, garnering 24 Emmy nominations and eight wins (including Outstanding Miniseries).
The Pacific isn't as tidy a story as Band of Brothers because it isn't based on a single book about a single company of soldiers. Instead, the story is pieced together from a variety of sources, primarily first-hand accounts. At the center of the action is Corporal Sid Phillips (a secondary character in the miniseries, played by Ashton Holmes), who served in the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division. Phillips fought alongside PFC Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale, The Departed), who went on to write Helmet for My Pillow (1957), one of the seminal memoirs of the Pacific War. Hailing from Mobile, Alabama, Phillips also happened to be the lifelong best friend of Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello, Jurassic Park), who served in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, and whose 1981 memoir, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawahas also become one of the key pieces of writing on the experiences of U.S. marines in the Pacific theater during World War II. Leckie's and Sledge's books provide the backbone for the narrative arc of The Pacific. Added to their harrowing tales is the story of famed war hero Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone (Jon Seda, Homicide: Life on the Street), whose extraordinary service in the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division under the command of Lt. Col. "Chesty" Puller (William Sadler, Die Hard 2) began at Guadalcanal, ended at Iwo Jima, and earned him a Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, and Purple Heart.
The Pacific begins in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor and ends approximately a year after V-J Day. Its 10 episodes follow the 1st, 5th, and 7th Marines (often working in conjunction with one another) as they face a dedicated and intransigent Japanese foe on Guadalcanal (including at the horrific Battle of Tenaru), Cape Gloucester during monsoon season, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. By narrowing its focus to only three lead characters, the miniseries is able to delve into the emotional and psychological effects of sustained combat in some of the most brutal, bloody, and inhumane battles in either theater of the war.
The Pacific is a companion piece to Band of Brothers in the truest sense of the word. It has taken some undeserved flak for not adhering to the rhythms and structure of the earlier series, but it's obvious that Spielberg, Hanks, and primary screenwriter Bruce McKenna (who also wrote three of the most memorable episodes of Band of Brothers) meant the two miniseries to merge in such a way as to provide as comprehensive a view of World War II as a thousand or so minutes of narrative television can. If Band of Brothers is about a group of soldiers (as its title suggests), then The Pacific concerns itself more with the experiences of individuals. While Band of Brothers follows its characters from boot camp until the end of the war, The Pacific makes sometimes lengthy excursions to the home front in order to give us a glimpse of civilian life before, during, and after World War II. And, of course, the characters in The Pacific face a vastly different sort of fighting against a vastly different enemy than their counterparts in Band of Brothers. If this second series doesn't expend quite as many of its minutes depicting armed conflict, the combat it does depict is far more gruesome and relentless than most of what's in Band of Brothers -- in large part because the Japanese refused to surrender, extending battles that would have lasted days in the European theater into weeks or even months, often leading to casualty rates in excess of 90 percent on the Japanese side.
In The Pacific, we don't get attached to secondary characters as readily as in Band of Brothers, but the trade-off is that we get much further inside the heads of the three principals. Robert Leckie is a character unlike any in Band of Brothers: smart, devoted to the marines, but deeply cynical about the insanity of war. Our journey with him from Guadalcanal to Cape Gloucester is bizarre and otherworldly. One moment he mercilessly mows down wave after wave of bonsai-charging Japanese grunts with his 30mm machine gun, and the next watches with wide-eyed awe as a fellow nerve-wracked marine takes his own life with a sidearm. Leckie is hospitalized after Cape Gloucester with combat fatigue, but returns to his unit in time to join them for the landing on Peleliu. Though a stable, well-educated man who had begun a career in journalism before the war and returned to it after, Leckie had a strong anti-authoritarian streak that manifested in drunkenness, stealing supplies from nearby Army units, and even pulling a gun on an officer (Leckie began and ended his military career as a Private First Class, having apparently been demoted several times). James Badge Dale plays Leckie with such confidence and easy-going charm that we can't help but like the guy despite his flaws. Leckie is the sort of kid that is all but extinct these days: educated, street-smart, tough, rambunctious, fun-loving, deep-thinking, and fiercely independent -- a survivor. Throughout his story, we sense that he will have a life more expansive than the war, even if his experience in combat will go on to define him in many ways. Badge Dale gracefully plays Leckie's impishness, weariness, and deep sense of integrity -- often simultaneously.
Leckie's story dominates roughly the first half of the series. Eugene Sledge entered the war late due to a persistent heart murmur caused by a childhood illness. He arrives in the Pacific at Peleliu just as his best friend Sid Phillips is preparing to return home. Sledge's story is the most traditionally dramatic as we watch him transform from a green and idealistic recruit from an affluent background in Mobile, to a merciless killer of Japanese soldiers, and finally to a combat veteran who was never able to come fully to grips with the inhumanity he witnessed on Peleliu and Okinawa. Joseph Mazzello is excellent as Sledge, playing his initial innocence so naturally that we worry for the kid's survival and are shocked by his later cold-bloodedness. Yet we feel the inevitability of his post-war difficulties long before they arrive. The Pacific is a miniseries full of small character moments, but one involving Mozzello stood out to me in particular. Upon first returning home to the family manse in Mobile, Eugene sees his mother through a doorway, putting away dishes. He takes a moment to watch her before letting her know that he's arrived home. Mazzello's face perfectly captures and expresses a simple but profound truth: All young men thrown into terrifying combat situations are haunted by the possibility that they'll never see their mothers again. In a split second and without a word of dialog, Mazzello manages to express that Eugene Sledge had believed countless times on the battlefield that he'd never arrive at this simple moment. The scene is understated, but powerful and perfectly acted.
Sledge's foil throughout the series is Corporal Merriell "Snafu" Shelton, a bizarre little man from Louisiana, memorably played by Rami Malek (Night at the Museum). Snafu initially horrifies both Sledge and us with his casual attitude about the carnage around him (his hobby is collecting gold fillings from the teeth of Japanese corpses, and in one memorable scene he amuses himself during some downtime by tossing pebbles into the blown-open skull of a dead Japanese machine gunner). The horrors of war are underscored by the fact that Snafu changes little across the series' episodes, but Sledge's view of him (as well as our own) softens: his antics are the least of the gruesome inhumanities that Sledge witnesses, and there's something almost admirable and even likable about his gallows sense of humor and how it allows him to cope with the unimaginable mental and physical stress of extended periods of combat. The Pacific makes no bones about the fact that war is hell. (The real Snafu, by the way, returned to Louisiana and led a quiet life as an air conditioner repairman, his neighbors unaware of the horrors he'd experienced during the war until the publication of Sledge's memoir.)
If any of the three principals in The Pacific gets the short shrift, it is John Basilone. The miniseries perfectly captures Basilone's extraordinary heroism in combat (the guy is easily the biggest badass in either series), but by limiting itself to his combat experience on Guadalcanal, a few brief scenes during his war bond tour, his courtship of and marriage to Marine Corps Women's Reserve member Lena Riggi (Annie Parisse, Law & Order), and his subsequent combat on Iwo Jima, The Pacific doesn't quite manage to paint a full picture of Basilone. While stationed in Manila during a four-year stint in the army prior to joining the marines, Basilone's carousing was so legendary that he earned the nickname "Manila Joe" among his fellow soldiers. There's little sense of that wild and bawdy side of Basilone in either the scripts for the episodes in which he appears or in Jon Seda's reserved performance. Aside from his charming and vulnerable scenes with Lena, The Pacific contents itself in portraying the legendary war hero instead of the full man. Seda's all-business performance isn't false (those who knew Basilone said he was, indeed, all business when on duty), it's incomplete. What the series does capture is Basilone's humility. During his war bonds tour, he is so insistent that his Medal of Honor was almost a result of luck, that he did nothing any other marine wouldn't have done, that we begin to believe him -- until his awe-inspiring actions on Iwo Jima remind us that the honors he won were entirely deserved and not at all a matter of luck. John Basilone wasn't a marine, he was a great marine. And maybe that revelation is enough to constitute a story arc in The Pacific. Even 10-part miniseries have their narrative limitations, after all.
As with its predecessor, The Pacific's scope is epic but not comprehensive. It stretches across multiple major battles of the war, but elides important fights in which its characters were not involved. The biggest benefit of this focus on character is that the centerpiece of the series isn't an obvious choice like Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, or Okinawa, but Peleliu, the island where Leckie and Sledge's stories overlap. A less celebrated action, the Battle of Peleliu was fought over a period of two months for control of an airstrip that would bring Allied aircraft closer to striking distance of the Japanese mainland. Nearly 11,000 Japanese soldiers and over 1,200 US marines were killed during the fight. Three episodes of the miniseries are devoted to the battle, which is grueling, intense, and laden with drama. Devoting so much time to Peleliu allows The Pacific to carve out a unique place for itself among World War II dramas. Its depictions of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa -- three battles featured in countless other movies about the war -- benefit from their de-emphasis in favor of Peleliu, which feels like fresh territory (that's not to say the depictions of those more famous battles aren't exemplary; in fact, the series' ninth episode, which centers on the fighting on Okinawa, is one of the most emotionally exhausting recreations of combat that I've ever seen). There is also a perfect symmetry in the fact that Leckie's war ended in Peleliu, and Sledge's began there, allowing Spielberg, Hanks, and company to make a seamless transition from one first-person account of the war to another. In fact, this sense of symmetry is so pronounced that it feels contrived until you dig into the supplements included in this set and realize that it is rigorously grounded in fact.
If The Pacific doesn't unseat Band of Brothers as the greatest war movie ever made, it does look and sound better on Blu-ray -- significantly better, in fact. If such a thing as a perfect transfer exists, then this 1080p/AVC presentation is it. The series mostly eschews the desaturated color timing that's become a cliché in WWII flicks made in the post-Saving Private Ryan era. Colors are rich and accurate, with deep black levels, subtle grays, and bright whites. Detail throughout is superlative. If there are digital artifacts at all, they're too subtle for me to notice. The superb image is matched by the DTS-HD lossless audio presentation, which is reference quality. Dialogue, effects, and the score by Hans Zimmer, Geoff Zanelli, and Blake Neely are bright and beautifully mixed. The battles are, of course, where the track really shines. LFE is prominent, while the use of the rear soundstage and directional panning is aggressive yet tasteful. Explosions are often carefully imaged behind the viewer's head. Coupled with the action in the front soundstage, it really gives a sense of how chaotic and terrifying combat would be.
Viewers less familiar with the history of the Pacific War will want to activate the Historical Background option on each disc prior to viewing the episodes (it is turned off by default). This presents each episode with the 5-minute video introductions by Tom Hanks and some of the people portrayed in the series which preceded the broadcasts on HBO. The segments offer great context for what you are about to see.
The set otherwise appears significantly lighter on supplements than the Band of Brothers box, but only because The Pacific is being released on Blu-ray right out of the gate. When Band of Brothers was released in high definition, all of the documentaries from the DVD release were included, but much of the footage was also reconstituted into a picture-in-picture Enhanced Viewing option. The Pacific skips the lengthy documentaries entirely in favor of the Enhanced Viewing option. It's a great feature that integrates text pop-ups and interviews with historians as well as some of the real men portrayed in the show. The feature is particularly helpful if you're having trouble keeping track of the numerous characters. Text pop-ups appear as major characters are introduced, naming them and providing a wealth of background information. Each disc also contains a separate interactive Field Guide that provides a timeline for the events in each episode, enhanced by text-based information, still photos, video interviews, animated maps, and archival footage of the war. If you sit down to watch The Pacific with little knowledge of the history of World War II, the Enhanced Viewing mode and interactive Field Guide will remedy that in short order.
The miniseries' 10 episodes are spread over five discs, with a sixth disc providing a few decent featurettes. Profiles of The Pacific is a collection of video featurettes about some of the men in the series. Each of the pieces runs approximately 10 minutes in length. "Making The Pacific" is a standard making-of promotional piece containing interviews with Spielberg, Hanks, the cast and crew. "Anatomy of the Pacific War" provides light context for the fighting in the Pacific theater, with particular emphasis on the racial animosity of the Americans and Japanese towards one another.
The Pacific isn't as great as Band of Brothers, but what war movie is? Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have once again delivered a miniseries that is gripping, intelligent, emotionally intense, visually beautiful, and packed to the brim with replay value. Like Band of Brothers, The Pacific succeeds in celebrating the Greatest Generation without glorifying or romanticizing war.
Should you buy the Blu-ray box? Uh...yeah. The audio and video are so stunning, the stimulation to your eyes and ears will cause the pleasure centers of your brain to explode. You've been warned.
Review content copyright © 2010 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Polish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 540 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Enhanced Viewing Mode
* Interactive Field Guide