The Pacific plays out much the way Band of Brothers did: an enhanced G.I.’s eye view of the Second World War. Executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks established the formula with Saving Private Ryan, combining unflinching realism with unabashed hero worship to depict events from the men on the tip of the spear. The Pacific demonstrates the power and durability of that formula, as evinced by its slew of Emmys and unmitigated critical praise. The new Blu-ray release may constitute the ideal means of watching it. Hit the jump for my full review.
Taking their cues from the “we ain’t gonna fix it ‘cause it clearly ain’t broke” department, the producers of The Pacific stick closely to the structure of Band of Brothers. We follow the exploits of three U.S. Marines, beginning with the battle of Guadalcanal and finishing with their return to the States after Japan’s surrender. All three Marines are historical figures–Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello), Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and John Basilone (Jon Seda)–and all three belonged to the 1st Marines Division. As with Band of Brothers their personalities remain lightly sketched. They are every soldier and no soldier, windows through which we can experience the events around them.
It works beautifully, partly because of the actors’ inherent sympathy, and partly because of the painstaking attention to detail on display in every episode. Things like the gloves used to cart around hot machine gun barrels lend an authenticity to the proceedings, and heighten the fear and horror at being on the front lines. The Australian settings lend themselves easily to the actual battlefields, and the “you are there” immersion of the atmosphere pulls no punches in depicting the hellish conditions at the front. Within that context, the quiet, unvarnished courage of these soldiers becomes all the more poignant.
Having said that, Band of Brothers pulled off the same trick, and did it first to boot. The Pacific sets itself apart from its predecessor with two key elements. First, it understands how both sides dehumanized each other in ways not present in the European theater. Vast cultural difference between east and west allowed the combatants to depict their enemies as subhuman monsters, which drove them to acts of utter barbarity both during and after the various battles. The Pacific also contrasts that world with the world back home, as Basilon and Sledge both spend significant screen time back in the States. It lends the miniseries a distinctiveness without losing its predecessor’s power, a feat which allows it to stand alongside Band of Brothers as an equal rather than a follower. Watching it is rarely easy, but invariably leaves you shaken, moved and a little wiser about what happened during that time. In that sense, the producers couldn’t have been more successful: doubly impressive considering the long shadow they had to outdistance.
And with all due respect for the original airing on HBO, you really haven’t seen it until you’ve seen it on Blu-ray. The set contains six discs, bound in a handsome metal case that looks right at home next to Band of Brothers on the shelf. The first five discs each contain two episodes of the series; the sixth contains a trio of behind-the-scenes features, topped by a biography of each of the real men depicted in the miniseries. The other five discs each hold a “field guide” covering the events depicted in the two episodes in question. The material includes maps, archive footage, interviews with historians on the nature of the specific battles and a timeline covering the progress of the characters through the war. In addition , each disc offers an “enhanced viewing” feature, which embeds various historical tidbits on screen while the episodes are playing. It really lets you soak in the material, allowing amateur historians to fully geek out while still providing an unparalleled piece of television drama.