I feel as though too many reviews and too many viewers are approaching HBO’s The Pacific as though it’s a chore. It’s not: If you watched the first episode this week, chances are, you’re in for next week, too, because it has tremendous narrative drive. While rightly noting that this 10-part series never shies away from the brutality of the World War II battles against Japan, the vividness of the carnage is neither excessively off-putting nor action-movie celebrated.
No, what came across in this week’s premiere and continues on through each succeeding episode is the tremendous psychological, as well as physical, strain that the war in the Pacific theater imposed upon everyone from the most low-ranking soldier to its higher-ranking strategists. Unlike Band of Brothers, made by many of the same people and led by producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, The Pacific doesn’t often offer the comfort of triumphant surges and comradeship under fire. It does something much trickier to pull off: It creates marvelous drama from a highly chaotic, confusing series of battlefields, and follows men who aren’t best buddies, but who are complex combinations of heroes, innocents, cynics, and damaged goods.
I don’t claim to have a lot of knowledge about this area of history, and the filmmakers can’t assume many viewers do. What I get from The Pacific strikes me as being “realistic” in the sense that, without having done research, I was convinced of it on the level of drama — of the sheer misery, fear, discipline, and bravery that commingled in an area characterized by one soldier as “jungle rot and malaria.” I’m also taken with the visuals. Director Tim Van Patten arranged a beautiful (there’s no other word for it, callous as it sounds) of, first, a big battle at night and then, the next morning, a shot of dead bodies floating in water.
The three main characters aren’t close friends, but rather fact-based men whose tales occasionally intersect, while holding up as individual narratives. James Badge Dale’s Leckie is brooding and literary and self-consciousnes and sensitive; he’s the kind of soul many of us wish we were or think we are. And it’s important in a grand historical spectacle like The Pacific to have characters you can latch onto, if not identify with. For others, it will be Jon Seda’s John Basilone, a more tough, gruff, and only on the surface less self-analytical man, who can perform heroic works without ever quite feeling he deserves to be considered a hero.
You see? The Pacific is already the kind of war story that draws you in on the strength of its characters while also making sure you get the details of Big Picture: Where these battles are being fought; how much more confusing, both tactically and morally, some of these missions seem than they were in Band of Brothers. That last is something I particularly appreciate about The Pacific — it’s as good at dramatizing the inner wars these Marines go through as it is at showing the hideous food they must eat, the sores and vermin that attack their bodies, the bullets and shrapnel that wounds them.
Am I in for the long haul. How about you?