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Review: Battles of 'The Pacific' show war at its most brutal

| Sunday, March 14, 2010

The comparisons are inevitable: Can HBO's "The Pacific" measure up to "Band of Brothers," the brilliant World War II miniseries set in the European theater?

The short answer is: yes. "The Pacific" is great, 10 hours of masterful storytelling about island-hopping Marines from the same bunch that brought you "Band of Brothers," which includes executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

Yet it's a different take on the war, appropriate since the fighting in the different theaters was vastly different, as well. Where "Band" told the story of a group of soldiers in the same outfit who saw action in many of the key battles in Europe, most of which are familiar to us still, "The Pacific" is the Asian theater as experienced through three main characters, all based on real people: Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), John Basilone (Jon Seda) and Eugene B. Sledge (Joe Mazzello). (The series is based, in part on books Leckie and Sledge wrote about their experiences.)

"I think that, hopefully, what we're exploring in this is the individual cost of war — when you ask your brother or father or your sister to go to war, what are you asking them to do?" said Tony To, a co-executive producer for "The Pacific" (and "Band"). "What is that cost• I think that's at the heart of this — it's not that we don't explore that in 'Band,' but the focus was about a group of men who carry each other through. This was about three individuals and a close look at what they paid, the emotional and psychological and physical tolls."

The price was, of course, heavy. It's both easy and typical now, decades removed, to think of the heroic actions and sacrifices of those who fought and think of them as world-savers who were born to the task. It's also wrong. "The Pacific" does a good job of showing how kids — and many really were kids — were thrown into the fire and met the challenge.

Joshua Close, who plays Sledge, notes that at the beginning of the series his character is "18 going on 15."

"He's riding a bike," he said. "These weren't professional warriors. These were painters and mechanics and electricians. My grandfather owned a deli in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., his whole life. It was amazing what was asked of them and what they accomplished, what they were asked to do — 'Good luck, go save the world, see you in four years.' It's unbelievable to think that it's even real."

The things these people experienced also seemed unreal —unreal in their savagery, their horror, particularly in the Pacific theater.

"In our platoon there were 19 out of 20 wounded and two out of every three killed on Peleliu," said Patrick McGinn, of Sun City West, Ariz., who enlisted at 17, was shot at 18, shot at 19 and home by 20. "That's pretty horrific." In addition to Peleliu, McGinn, now 84, was also in the first wave of soldiers to land on Okinawa; both battles are featured in the series. Like many of the men fighting there, he didn't know much about the Pacific islands he would fight on — only that the fighting would be fierce.

"If we landed on an island, we figured we were going to kill everybody on it, because they weren't going to surrender." It was a different kind of fighting in a different place.

"It's like this alien, mysterious, exotic place where there's not women and the guys are fighting in weird-sounding islands and nobody knows what happens," said Bruce McKenna, another co-executive producer who wrote several of the episodes. "The enemy is savage and exhibits a military behavior that's unprecedented in American history. It all lends itself to some really clear, delineated storytelling that's new and fresh, because we're sort of used to the jaded.

"As an aside, you're never going to see the Quentin Tarantino version of 'The Pacific.' Because the European one has been done so many times, you can then parody it. You can't parody the Pacific because nobody knows about it. That was a huge advantage we had doing the series, going deeper, darker, grimmer, I think in many ways truer, than what we did on 'Band of Brothers.' It's a much more honest portrayal of that conflict that has ever been done before."

It's certainly educational, and to succeed, it had to be. As McKenna says, depictions of the European theater have typically been more popular, more ingrained in our consciousness.

"I don't know what it is about the Pacific theater, why we don't talk about it very much," said James Badge Dale, who plays Leckie and kept a photo of him on his bathroom mirror during shooting. "Maybe it's because the people who know something about it decided we shouldn't talk about it very much. It was a particularly brutal campaign. There was brutality in the actual fighting, and there was the conditions in the jungle, and there was a certain amount of brutality in the human soul." World War II is known, of course, as the "good" war. But that's too simple, too reductive. All war contains horror, by its nature, and "The Pacific," to an even greater extent than "Band of Brothers," repeatedly makes that clear.

"Yes, it was the 'good war,' " McKenna said. "You want to see what the good war really looked like• Here it is. And this is the good war. Think of what the bad ones are like."

Yet since we still think of this war in pretty straightforward terms, the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other, it makes it an attractive canvas for storytellers.The storytelling is, in fact, excellent, and while the clarity is there, the complexity is, also. Basilone will win the Congressional Medal of Honor and be sent home to help with the war-bond effort, an assignment he grows tired of, requesting to go back into battle. Sledge's doctor father keeps him out of the service after Pearl Harbor, hearing a heart murmur. But Sledge's insistence wins out, and he ships out a year later. Leckie, in some ways the most-interesting character, is a journalist by trade and a machine-gunner in war. He has an almost bemused attachment from the war at first, even as he's fighting in it. Yet the fighting is so intense, so horrible, that it changes him, like it did so many.

"I saw it as this internal conflict in him," Dale said. "Would you rather die or would you rather go insane• Which is worse• ... I think he was deathly afraid of losing his mind, and losing his humanity."

Yet in the moment, he was as focused as any soldier.

"You can't think," Dale said. "I think for all these men, when that moment comes, I think everyone becomes incredibly present. They're not thinking about the consequences. They're just trying to stay alive." Stripped to its essence, that is, after all, what war is about.

"It's really about the experience of war being the guy five feet to your right and five feet to your left and five feet in front of you," To said.

"That's the common human grunt experience. The man to your right is really important to you and the man to your left is really important to you and the man in front of you who is trying to kill you is really important to you. That's what you know."

That's the great challenge, to maintain the epic scale of the biggest event of the 20th Century, yet to do so in personal ways that resonate today. "The Pacific" does this exceptionally well. These men saved the world, yes. But they had to do it one savage battle at a time.

Additional Information:

'The Pacific'

• 9 p.m. Sunday through May 16, HBO

HBO's Web site

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