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

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After addressing the European front with "Band of Brothers," executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg take on the second theater with the 10-part HBO miniseries, "The Pacific." (This clip contains mature language and violent imagery.)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010

"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.

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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.


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