March 14th, 2010
As an “amateur” television critic, I don’t receive screeners in advance, which means that I was not amongst those who received the entirety of HBO’s The Pacific, the followup to the channel’s Band of Brothers, a month ago. This would normally be a bit annoying, in that it means that Sepinwall’s review is up as soon as the first part finished while I’m putting this together two hours later, but I think with The Pacific that it’s probably for the best.
In some ways, I don’t want “Part One” of this miniseries to have time to sink in, time for me to really pull together my thoughts. With material of this nature, material that is meant to capture tense moments in the midst of an uncertain conflict, there is some value to just responding to what you witnessed, considering how and why the show goes about creating those responses. A masterpiece in dramatic pacing, “Part One” depicts the silence in chaos, the inhumanity of survival, and reminds us that many of the young men who went to war knew as little about war as they know about what they plan on doing with the rest of their lives.
In other words, it’s just like Band of Brothers except for all the ways in which it is quite dramatically different; in short, it’s fantastically engaging television.
“Part One” is many things, including an introduction to the characters who will be most important in the weeks to come, but its most important function is to capture the sheer uncertainty surrounding this battle. It plays against our expectations, and the expectations of the soldiers, at every turn: the beach landing finds the beach abandoned, and the walk through the tall grass yields nary a peep. My dog spooks easily, despite being mostly deaf, and I was turning down the volume during many of those scenes walking through the jungles of Guadalcanal island, thinking that at any moment a shell would destroy an abandoned vehicle, or a grenade would blow someone away without warning. But those moments never came, a reminder that not all wars play out like they were scripted by Michael Bay.
Of course, I say this before I point out how well scripted this episode really was in terms of bringing us to the point where the lack of conflict was more tense than any actual conflict would have been. It’s too early for us to be invested in these characters, even with the back stories provided early in the episode. We recognize Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) on sight, and we get a sense of what Sidney Phillips (Ashton Holmes) left behind at home, but we aren’t on pins and needles waiting to see if they survive: it’s too early to kill off characters who have been given any sort of story. Instead, the episode makes us feel their tension rather than making us feel tense about their situation, making their uncertainty our uncertainty and eventually making their horror our horror. They play off of our knowledge of the bloody nature of the Pacific front, and they make us wait for it so long that we’re like the men sitting in the dead of night seeing Japanese in the trees where there are no Japanese, and firing on one of their own going out to take a piss. Over the course of the episode, we see their optimism wiped out like the bulk of the American naval forces, the men and the audience coming to the shared realization that this is, to quote one of the veterans in the opening to the episode, “a nasty war, man.”
When the episode finally gets to the battle between the Japanese and the Americans at Alligator Creek, the cover of night keeps the battle from becoming personal: no character we had met before takes a bullet to the head, the show avoiding the sentimental hook that it could have used to give the battle weight. Rather, it wants us to realize that in some ways this battle has no weight at all: it will be the first of many battles like that one, and in order to get through they need to forget what Leckie found inside that bag. They have to forget that they are killing men with families, killing men who carry keepsakes from their children, and killing men who are just like them in so many ways. There is tremendous, soul-crushing weight to these events, that enormous pile of bodies strewn across the beach still haunting me a few hours later, but the soldiers are asked to look past it all, to move onto the next battle without really being able to reflect on the events at hand.
When that battle comes to an end, we have events that capture the struggles they will face even once the conflict comes to a temporary end. The first is when an injured Japanese soldier uses a grenade to kill his would-be rescuers, an act of suicide which the rest of the Americans are forced to shrug off. The second is the desire to toy with your victims, as the soldiers shoot around a panicking Japanese soldier who resigns himself to his fate in an act of defiance. The Americans treat him like a play thing, happy to have an opportunity to shoot for fun (or sport, in the form of the “turkey shoot”) rather than for their own lives, but Leckie puts the man out of his misery. Leckie, who eventually burns the photo of a soldier and his wife he finds on one of the bodies, does not view war as sport, nor anything approaching a game: the character, played nicely by Dale, has never been optimistic about this war, and the events at Alligator Creek only increased his resolve and his focus. Unquestionably the “lead” in this hour, Leckie’s response feels like what the show desires us to see: while this could all be a game, the consequences are decidedly real, and how these soldiers contend with that will be the most intriguing question to answer in the weeks to come.
That final scene, a nice piece of dramatic staging, communicates a lot of things both big and small. On the small side, we learn that Sidney Phillips is only 18 years old, and was only 17 when he first enlisted; we also learn that, despite his friend Eugene’s desire, his letter didn’t arrive until weeks after his birthday, which won’t be the first “hope” to fall on deaf ears. However, more importantly, the reinforcements learn simply by looking at the men who began this offensive that they were “put through the ringer,” and that what awaits them here is something more dangerous than they perhaps imagined. The beaten and battered men we followed on Guadalcanal Island are a warning, living evidence that what lies ahead is bloody, dangerous, and potentially horrifying. While Leckie and Phillips arrived to a tropical paradise and discovered the horror gradually, these new arrivals are given first-hand indications of what lies within the trees by those who came before them. And now they, like the audience, know that what lies ahead will not be pretty, and the show can move onto discovering just how fucked we are now.
The show has the same dramatic hallmarks as Band of Brothers: stunning visual effects, solid performances, fantastic direction, and a reverence for the history and the individuals being depicted. But while Band of Brothers was about strategy and bureaucracy (to some degree), The Pacific is about a war where that seems far from their minds. The soldiers are sitting on a hill watching things explode, but they don’t know which side is winning, and that uncertainty fuelled this episode more than any sort of interpersonal conflict or the like. We see bits and pieces of the camaraderie that defined Band of Brothers, like the scene in the mess hall or Phillips agreeing to drink wine, but for the most part the miniseries seems to be suggesting that the war is going to wipe away those moments of brotherhood faster than they even realize.
It’s the perfect starting point, really: the only thing I’m certain of, at the end of the hour, is that things are only going to get worse from this point out. And while that’s bad news for these young soldiers, it’s good news for fans of dramatic television.
- Fans of Wonderfalls, Bryan Fuller’s short-lived drama series, had a real treat here: both Caroline Dhavernas, who played Jaye, and William Sadler, who played Jaye’s father, appear in the series as Vera, Leckie’s “woman at home,” and General (or some other high-ranking title) “Chesty” respectively.
- I like the opening credits, presumably set to a theme from Hans Zimmer (one of three credited composers), but it’s a little bit repetitive: the parchment/lead combination is visually striking, and the use of red is pretty fantastic, but it seems like the opening lacks a sense of progression or purpose beyond its visual aesthetic.
- One thing that wasn’t clear: at one point the soldiers are told to get rid of any envelope which has an address on it. Is this in order to keep the Japanese from discovering the mailing centre for the troops so that they can’t use it as a target, or is there some other reason behind this particular request?
- Alan’s review above is, of course, as great as his thoughts usually are, but Todd VanDerWerff is also on episode duty over at The A.V. Club, so there’s a wealth of great critics writing about this one on a weekly basis.