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Hanks & Spielberg's World War II 'The Pacific' miniseries is engaging, complex

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010; C01

"The Pacific" wastes no time shipping out to the Solomon Islands in August 1942, where we are made to understand that war is indeed hell, but it is also a lot of hunh? In terms of comprehension, it looks at first to be a death march, 10 unrelenting episodes.

The people who've collaboratively and meticulously crafted this HBO epic -- from executive producers (and prominent World War II valor-aholics) Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, and continuing all the way down the list to the lowly production assistants (oh, the things they carried: blood, arms, legs, artillery, coconuts) -- seem to want to deliberately disorient their audience at the start. Because that's how it was for the generation who fought World War II: an initial burst of duty followed by confusion and darkness. (Brother, we survived "The Wire." We do not turn tail at the first sign of epic complication.)

Who's who? What's what? Look out! They're all in helmets and covered in grime. Bullets are flying and God help you if you don't know what's going on. Which one's Pvt. Leckie? (James Badge Dale.) Which one's Basilone? (Wait, Basilone's not even on Guadalcanal yet? No, that's Basilone, played by Jon Seda; we'll pick up with him again later, next week.)

Meanwhile, it's all boats, maps and that unfortunately ubiquitous slur, Japs. All but the most ardent fans of war movies and the Military Channel will initially feel lost, overwhelmed.

But if you give "The Pacific" about three episodes to broaden its story (the miniseries disembarks at 2100 hrs Sunday), it becomes the sweeping, engagingly emotional stuff one would expect. After all, it cost a reported $200 million to make and took longer to complete than the war it portrays.

An undoubtedly impressive effort, "The Pacific" represents HBO's full firepower, deploying a tag team of writers and directors who've worked on the network's "John Adams" miniseries as well as "The Wire," "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" and, most notably, 2001's "Band of Brothers" -- to which "The Pacific" is intended as a hemispheric complement. It's literally the other side of the story, and it is being told because it must be told. Obligation is "The Pacific's" essential mission.

* * *

Leckie and some of his buddies in the 1st Marine Division barely survive four months in Guadalcanal. Witness (if you dare) the strides we've made in explosive head wounds and eviscerating shrapnel attacks since Spielberg and Hanks saved Private Ryan in 1998. There is bleeding, burns, guts spilling, maggots munching on bloated and decaying corpses; there is barfing, chronic diarrhea and, like a cherry on top, enuresis.

Remember the comic book about Sad Sack? These are Sadder Sacks -- wetter, hotter, sicker and trailed by constant cloud of doom. On the occasion of one fellow's birthday, the platoon marches into a jungle singing "How [bleeped] are you now? How [bleeped] are you now?" to the tune of "Happy Birthday to You." The overall vibe gets very Oliver Stone's "Platoon" (rather than Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima"), nihilistic even, adhering to our postmodern tendency to lend the Greatest Generation some of the Vietnam era's surplus neuroses and despair.

Still, hang on. "The Pacific" spans years, and in a couple of episodes, we'll get a tonal shift, as the 1st Marine Division retrains, recuperates and gets laid in Melbourne, Australia. Only then comes the reassurance that the miniseries is not merely an assault on the senses and patriotic chest-clutching, but indeed a fully told tale. Here it begins to feel like the reason you pay such a high cable bill. After a heroic performance in a nighttime attack, Sgt. Basilone wins a Medal of Honor and, in further episodes, returns to the States to promote U.S. war bonds and to bed starlets. (WWII history buffs know where the real-life Basilone's story went from there; everyone else will have to wait.)

Knowing how well its viewers have been trained to tolerate story lines that are tangled up in several characters at once, HBO lets "The Pacific" confidently mire itself down. The real reward comes after the fourth episode, when Pvt. Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello) arrives in the South Pacific, gets his bearings, and takes us through the most horrific stretches of the war, on the islands of Peleliu and Iwo Jima.

Mazzello (you may remember him as a boy in Spielberg's "Jurassic Park") delivers a masterfully measured transformation in the final episodes, to such a degree that viewers will nearly forget the Leckie and Basilone story lines. Another standout performance comes late in the game as well, from Rami Malek, who plays Sledge's resiliently loyal trench mate, Pvt. Merriell "Snafu" Shelton. A drawling and creepy angel-of-death figure, Snafu feels like he's been reassigned from a 'Nam flick -- a necessary antihero among fallen heroes. As Mazzello and Malek tromp and fight their way to the war's end, they carry the weight of everything "The Pacific" wants to say about the men who fought World War II.

* * *

Which, when all is said and done, is the same message as ever: sacrifice, honor, valor, remembrance. One begins to wonder what it is in the psyche of Spielberg, Hanks and co-executive producer Gary Goetzman (also of "Band of Brothers") that keeps bringing them back to World War II. It would be easy to diagnose it as the baby boomers' constant search for Dad's approval, to provide a Hollywood sheen of realistic horror to their fathers' private nightmares and then polish them in nobility and courage; but surely it's more complicated than that.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in the war, the number of vets still living has slipped (or is about to slip) below 2 million; according to the Veterans Affairs Department, WWII vets die off at an average rate of 800-900 a day. These are the statistics that tug at the offspring of the Greatest Generation, and so they keep making movies about it, as if movies are more permanent memorials than granite. (That may be true.)

Whether it's Spielberg or Eastwood or documentarian Ken Burns (who told some of these same stories in "The War"), all Kilroy-Was-Here films can quickly lead to some usual tropes. "The Pacific" consulted all the right military historians; it seems no detail is out of place. The maps of the South Pacific, which locate the story for us as the beginning (and in the transitions) of each episode are eerily and exquisitely rendered. It has the heart-swelling, "West Wing"-ish Hans Zimmer theme music, flags billowing in slow-mo, troops crawling through reeds. It draws source material from actual vets, including Leckie and Sledge, whose memoirs became bestsellers and supply the main characters' story arcs.

But for all the noble collaboration, for all its division of writing and directing duties and its tactical approach to deployment of film crews, "The Pacific" becomes a very good miniseries that fails to arrive at a coherent, artistic sensibility. There are simply too many people making (and starring in) this movie with too much duty in their hearts, trying to do right by Dad.

Overall, "The Pacific" reminds me of the World War II Memorial in Washington, where Hanks and Spielberg joined veterans for some CNN-ready ceremonial honor and pre-show publicity on Thursday afternoon. It's a perfectly nice (and necessary) place to think about the war's veterans and the sacrifices these men made, and to say not nearly enough about Mom and everyone else back home.

Yet for many, the World War II Memorial possesses a strange and almost cold vacuity, in which a certain triumphalism and solemnity negate narrative. What you see on the Mall is, depending on your perspective, either a fitting and quietly majestic tribute or it's what happens when the committee that designed that tribute grows too large and must satisfy too many interests. Patriots and architecture critics are still bickering over that one.

Likewise, "The Pacific" finds itself serving many masters and thematic tracks. It wants to please and honor remaining vets and ring true to history buffs. It wants to impress the people who like movies with guns, and it is clad in regulation critic-proof battle gear. But chief among its demands is to capture HBO's core audience. These viewers are able to track dozens of characters in leapfrogging story lines; they also understand that a movie can and should be wickedly wry, deeply sad and intensely violent, sometimes all within the same scene. War is hell? Then give us hell.

And here it is.

The Pacific, (one hour) premieres at 9 p.m., Sunday on HBO

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