Friday, December 10, 2010

Oceans Away (The Pacific)

Comparing the title sequence of The Pacific, the 2010 HBO miniseries (new to DVD) chronicling the struggle between the United States and Japan in World War II, to that of its European Theater-based older sibling Band of Brothers (2001) speaks volumes about how each production approaches its subject. All ten episodes of Band of Brothers kicked off with a compelling juxtaposition: talking-head interviews of actual veterans depicted in the series; along with an opening-credits sequence (featuring a gorgeous score by the late Michael Kamen) showing the stable of actors who portray these vets (from scenes edited together in the step-printed style of Wong Kar-Wai). Stirring without being jingoistic, mournful without being sentimental, the Band of Brothers title sequence is an act of great humility all the more surprising coming from the Spielberg-Hanks dual monarchy that three years earlier brought us Saving Private Ryan: it tells us that the dramatic recreation of these events, no matter how "authentic," pales in comparison to what these men actually went through.

With a score by Hans Zimmer (less memorable than Kamen's, but refreshingly "BWAHM"-less), The Pacific begins each of its ten episodes with a subtle yet crucially different tack -- charcoal drawings of characters and scenes from the series transforming into actual screen footage. The folks behind this sequence obviously put into it a lot of thought and care. No doubt they'd be shocked to learn that their blending of images -- especially the "explosions" of charcoal on the page -- made me grimace at the start of each episode. To be fair, The Pacific lacks an advantage that Band of Brothers possessed ten years ago: most of the real-life veterans depicted in the series have passed away, making similar talking-head interviews impossible. Nevertheless, what's irksome about the title sequence for The Pacific is how it trumpets the act of creation. It suggests, rather presumptuously, that its fiction is the reality.

The Pacific suffers from narrative problems as well. Based on the respective memoirs of vets Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge, the dramatic arc covers most of the significant action in the Pacific Theater between 1942-1945 (Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa) but makes a fatal error in terms of perspective. Leckie (played by James Badge Dale) and Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) are two of the central characters, with the POV of a third, John Basilone (Jon Seda), shoehorned in at haphazard intervals. All three were in the 1st Division Marine Corps, but in different regiments, and their paths crossed in a vague manner that could be called Band of Passing Acquaintances. Hanks and Spielberg probably thought that following diverging paths would reflect the island-hopping American strategy in the Pacific Theater and widen the narrative scope (in contrast to Band of Brothers's relatively straightforward throughline from boot camp to the "Bird's Nest"). It takes a Robert Altman to pull off this sort of thing without the seams showing, however; and the gear shifts in The Pacific are frequently jarring. Moreover, nobody seemed to realize that depicting all the events from only three sets of eyes narrows the scope of the experience.

I always loathed the late Stephen Ambrose for his romanticizing of The Second World War. A non-veteran (born in 1936) who reached a high degree of literary stature (albeit marked by controversy), Ambrose came across like the kind of starry-eyed D-Day wannabe the hardened vets in his books invariably razzed. (His rather dubious testament to the realism of Saving Private Ryan was also employed to make the film above reproach.) Yet he had a fiction author's knack for character, incident and anecdote, and the series adaptation of his Band of Brothers used these finer qualities to push back the encroaching sentiment. Band was far from flawless. A couple of episodes lurched toward a unifying theme instead of embodying it (namely the third, "Carentan"), and some of the actors looked so alike in their matching crew cuts and uniforms it took awhile to sort them out. Yet the series grew stronger, more resonant as it went along, gradually expanding from the POV of a central protagonist, Dick Winters, to varying perspectives of the Easy Company experience in Europe. Appropriately, their stories were told not in any one singular style, but a variety of techniques ranging from voiceover ("The Breaking Point") to flashback narrative ("Why We Fight").

Responding to Alan Sepinwall's glowing review of a Pacific episode (one of many), a commenter stated that Band of Brothers "had the benefit of showing the European Theater from multiple perspectives: Platoon Lt., Company Captain, Medic, First Sergeant, wide-eyed naive Private, and more worldly battle-tested Private." In contrast, The Pacific "is little more than looking at the Pacific Theater through a telescope, and the only image I see is a Marine Private with mud and dirt on his face." This hits on the fundamental monotony of the series. Leckie, Sledge, and Basilone are allotted their own personalities, and react to their war experiences in different ways; but even with distinctive filmmakers at the helm (including Carl Franklin, director of the great One False Move), nearly every episode hits the same beats, is told in the same style, looks exactly the same way. The pair of stand-outs -- incidentally, the two episodes that conclude the series -- delve deeply into, respectively, the harrowing atrocities (and struggle to retain humanity) at Okinawa, and the culture shock of American vets returning to their lives back home. These end The Pacific on an involving note that almost compensates for the earlier hackneyed remoteness.

It was also shrewd, in the homestretch of the series, to leave out iconic images from the war (the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, the bombing of Hiroshima). Unfortunately, The Pacific lacks enough character, incident or anecdote to take those images' place. Band of Brothers gave us the amazing Damian Lewis, the shambling charm of Ron Livingston, and at least a dozen more names and/or faces I won't soon forget. I'm still not sure what to make of James Badge Dale, whose performance as Leckie leads the first five or six episodes of The Pacific. I first saw Badge Dale on AMC's Rubicon, originally thought he was the worst lead for a TV show ever, then grew gradually impressed by his curly-gray-haired unconventionality before the conspiracy-series exposed itself as a long slow road to nothing. His style and temperament fit the iconoclastic Leckie, who becomes a war hero despite his better instincts; yet Badge Dale's regressiveness is all too fitting for the inert third and fourth episodes (Leckie falling in love in Australia, then committed to a mental hospital), and neither actor nor series fully recover. As the more emblematically heroic Basilone, who earns the Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal, then is sent to the States to promote buying war bonds before getting the itch to return to combat, Jon Seda gets by but can't fill the hole at the show's center with limited resourcefulness and even more limited screen time.

Although Leckie is the focal character at the start of The Pacific, with a smattering of Basilone, it's Sledge who comes to the forefront by the end. The tall, lanky Joseph Mazzello (who appeared as one of Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard nerd horde in The Social Network) has the most expressive face of all the performers, and his Sledge has the most compelling trajectory of any character -- from naive cherry to scarily efficient mortar carrier. ("The Marines taught me how to kill Japs," he snaps to a civilian in the final episode. "I got pretty good at it.") It also helps that Mazzello is teamed with the remarkable Rami Malek, whose PFC Merriell "Snafu" Shelton is a skinny, hollow-eyed sadist with surprising reserves of loyalty. Inflecting in a soft Cajun drawl, Malek makes Snafu unpredictable for someone who talks and moves at such a leisurely pace. In between prying gold out of the fillings of dead Japanese soldiers and casually dropping pebbles in the cavity of another Japanese soldier whose head has been blown off (the most haunting image of the entire series), Snafu appears borderline psychotic. But Malek, working with Mazzello, makes his condition understandable. Culminating in an unforgettable scene in a village hut with a crying baby, they create an unforgettable duet that reveals the tenuous line between humanity and barbarism.

With twice the budget of Band of Brothers, The Pacific looks great. On a purely visual level, it harkens back to that time. Still, over ten episodes, you expect more than one memorable supporting character and a handful of arresting images. It's probably not an indication of staying power when you watch the closing credits of the last episode of a miniseries, with each character appearing onscreen, and for over ninety percent of them you ask, "Who's that guy?" The production values are all there in The Pacific; it's the people who are missing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

three months ago i ran into a problem which is usual of all of us ! what to do and how to go on living, I cant understood ((I stopped smiling at ALL!!!! :( yes!!,i have bad looking teeth because of heredity ... why I? Teeth is the first thing you see when chat anybody,or doing smth like this, I found a solution in putting lumineers ! and i can say it has 100%result!!,now i know its a good decision