There are things men can do to one another that are sobering to the soul; and it’s one thing to square it with god, and another to square it with yourself.
– Leckie, Part One
I know that The Pacific is airing in the States a good few weeks ahead of us, but the first episode of the show (well, a double bill) just landed here in the UK and Ireland on the ever wonderful Sky Movies. I’m probably going to do a little summary of my thoughts on the whole show when it finishes airing, but I do have some initial thoughts that might bear putting into words. It’s a great time to be watching television, isn’t it?
The Pacific is, for those living under a rock, a miniseries focusing on the exploits of men serving during World War II in… well, take a guess. It’s being sold as a pseudo-sequel to the fantastic Band of Brothers, as much as a historical miniseries can be a sequel or follow-up – crucially, it’s from the same people, namely Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks and adopts a somewhat similar format. For those unaware, Band of Brothers is definitely on the shortlist for the best miniseries ever made – so, as you can imagine, that’s quite some pedigree. And, despite some ratings troubles Stateside (although that’s somewhat mitigated when repeats and on-demand viewings are factored in), it looks like it might make a proud addition to the family.
It’s interesting to contemplate whether Band of Brothers has made things easier or harder for The Pacific. The fact that such a monumental accomplishment has already been made – trust me when I saw that Band of Brothers was like nothing that came before on television – is a blessing and a curse. It takes a bit of pressure and expectation off the newer miniseries (as we all trust those involved and know that it can be done, and – let’s face it – doing it once made it easier to do again), but it also means the show runs the risk of being caught in its big brother’s shadow.
There is at least one item in favour of the new miniseries, and I need to clarify I’m speaking from an Irish perspective here. Our history books obviously cover the Second World War, but we’re very much focused on the events in Europe, for selfish reasons. Sure, we read up a bit on the Japanese conflict, hitting all the big incidents like Pearl Harbour, Midway, Iwo Jima and Okinowa – and, of course, the bombing of Hiroshima – but we don’t do it with any hint of depth. While Band of Brothers was very much a trip to a world that anyone with a second-level education in Europe would be familiar with, The Pacific offers to take its non-American audience somewhere new.
Still, I am somewhat skeptical. The single most powerful moment in the original miniseries came in the penultimate episode, Why We Fight. After eight hours drilling into the audience how horrible and random and pointless the conflict was, with the characters themselves questioning what they are doing, the miniseries offers a justification for the carnage – a reason for the violence. The scenes in the concentration camp are harrowing and emotional and underscore the true importance of the Second World War and why it was necessary. It wasn’t these atrocities which directly led to the war – that was the wranglings of politicians – but they offered a powerful reason why the Third Reich needed to be dismantled. It is one of the most powerful moments I can recall on the small screen.
The beauty of that sequence was that it cut straight to the heart of the horror in central Europe. The liberation of the camps – and the moment the world acknowledged them – was a hugely important part of the legacy of the war. I wonder how The Pacific will deal with its defining moment? There are stories of loss and heroism and attrition on Iwo Jima and Okinowa and dozens of other tiny islands, but the defining moment of the Pacific campaign was the use of nuclear weapons against Japan. That is arguably the moment which still stays with America and, since the show adopts an American perspective, would seem to be a very important moment. However, it wasn’t one involving soldiers or infantry or any of the conventional methods of war. I wonder how The Pacific will handle it, or if they will mostly sidestep it. This is just idle wondering, I’m sure we’ll find an answer eventually.
So far I like how it has distinguished itself from its predecessor. There’s a sequence near the start of the first episode where soldiers board the little boats ferrying them to an island. They kneel, they chew gum, they fidget, they pray. We’ve seen all this before – in Saving Private Ryan it was the opening scene, the calm before the storm. The doors open and the troops storm the beach… to nothing. Eerie silence. Perhaps more than the terrifying battles and suicide bombings which follow, this scene sets apart what was so different about the Pacific theatre and explains why this isn’t more of the same. In many ways the European front represented the last gasp of conventional warfare, with tanks and grenades and shiny technology; the Pacific instead represented the birth of modern, no-holds-barred warfare – suicide bombings, ambushes in dense and unforgiving terrain and the use of civilians as weapons. Perhaps, in a way, The Pacific is more relevant than Band of Brothers.
It goes without saying that the production work is stunning. The high definition makes the jungles of Australia come alive, allowing the audience to trace individual beads of sweat dripping down the faces of the characters. Fitting the style of the program, the colours have all been enhanced and shine brightly (intentionally designed to contrast with the desaturated colour schemes of the Europe of Band of Brothers), making this the perfect television show for High Definition. Not since Planet Earth has a show demanded that you watch it in High Definition. Green is very much the colour of choic here. The prop work and special effects are absolutely impressive. The Japanese favoured attacking by night, and the show has mastered the difficult task of presenting gun battles in the night. There’s a small element of confusion, of course, but much less than the usual amount which typically plagues such productions.
On the talent front, I can’t help but mourn the fact the BBC aren’t involved in the show – even though it makes sense from a logistical perspective. The actors – for the most part – don’t jump out the way that the British talent did on Band of Brothers. There’s no Damien Lewis presenting himself as a hugely talented actor to watch. On the other hand, I would say the performances are weak or bland – they get the job done. James Badge Dale is the actor I’m keeping an eye on throughout the production, having seemingly landed the role of Leckie, one of the authors whose memoirs formed the basis of the movie. Dale is a talented actor who has been shipped around guest spots and supporting roles on US television for years (and popped up in The Departed) and might prove someone to watch.
I’m not sure whether it’s a conscious choice or not, but the cast seems somewhat tighter on The Pacific than it did on Band of Brothers. Whereas Band of Brothers was Damien Lewis and an ensemble, here it seems the focus is very much on three characters, driving three strands. Even within those strands, the audience is always focusing on one of those three characters. It certainly makes it a lot easier to get into from the start – Band of Brothers was a bit overwhelming with dozens and dozens of characters – and I wonder if this will remain the format from here on out or if it will attempt to deepen and widen the focus over the next few weeks.
Another facet which is interesting to note, and perhaps represents a conscious decision after Band of Brothers, is the lack of a “team at training” episode. Band of Brothers opened with the group in training under David Schwimmer’s perfectly slimy Captain Herbert Sobal, waiting until the second episode to throw us into D-Day and Normandy. Here it’s action from the outset, with the first hour formed around the Battle for Alligator Creek. I can understand the desire to avoid repeating what we’ve already seen – and if there’s nothing worth showing, there’s nothing worth showing – but it just seems very quick, rather than sprawling and epic. But it’s much of a muchness, it doesn’t detract from the quality of the show.
The Pacific has passed ‘The Gran Test’. The Gran Test is an ingenious quality assurance method devised by myself in consultation with a panel of experts (yes, I was talking to my reflection, but still…), based around the simple fact that it is nigh impossible to get my gran on board for a new television show that isn’t related to crime. She’s a devil for the CSI. Attempts to get her to watch numerous other shows have failed. The Gran Test is the highest accomplishment that any non-CSI show can achieve. The Pacific is already on Gran’s schedule. Which is no small accomplishment. In fact, we’re going to go back and rewatch Band of Brothers when this is finished. This is the bit where I say “don’t take my word for it”.
I am enjoying the show. It is ridiculously well put together and, so far, seems to demonstrate – as its predecessor did – that the gap in production scale between television and film is rapidly closing. It’s hyperbole to compare any given show to “a new movie ever week”, but in this case it’s fair. I’m looking forward to the next eight weeks.