Sunday, June 28, 2009

What They Did During the War

Bereft of HBO, I missed out on Band of Brothers (along with so many other of now all-time favorite shows) when it first aired in 2001, catching up to it a few years later on DVD. I took my time checking it out, for a number of reasons: the initial reviews were mixed; the author of the original book was facing heated accusations of plagiarism (albeit not, to the best of my knowledge, for that particular book); and the timing -- between 9/11 and Iraq -- made me weary of war, especially the kind of romanticized depiction that Stephen Ambrose was (in)famous for. Years earlier I had flipped through Ambrose's D-Day, a lively read with impeccable detail undercut by a sense of overidealized machismo. Ambrose got knotted up between wanting to show the very human sacrifices of these men and an impulse to depict them as Men straight out of Greek mythology. (Women don't exist in Ambrose's world, except to give birth to soldiers.) Steven Spielberg revealed a similar weakness in Saving Private Ryan (a film for which Ambrose served as a consultant): as Tom Carson pointed out in a very astute critique for Esquire, the technical proficiency of the "real-time" Normandy landing sequence was nonetheless problematic in creating the impression that the beach was stormed by American warrior-gods in little over twenty minutes. Throughout the entire movie (the most morally confused picture he has ever made), Spielberg wants to have it both ways, never more so than in the depiction of Jeremy Davies's Cpl. Upham, a bookish pacifist shamed into becoming a cold-blooded killer. Despite admiring some of the performances, I disliked Saving Private Ryan pretty intensely, resented the bullying tone the film's supported took to the slightest whiff of criticism (the ridiculous implication being that if you didn't like the movie then you hated America too), and was pleased by its surprise defeat at the Oscars -- like Pauline Kael noted, "as if they deserved awards for serious intentions."

Although Spielberg, as an executive producer, was closely involved in the making of Band of Brothers -- along with Ryan star Tom Hanks, who also executive-produced as well as directed one of the ten episodes -- the vast superiority of the enterprise suggests a more collaborative and complex vision. Band of Brothers the series follows the paratroopers of Easy Company from basic training to their pivotal role on D-Day to the failure of "Operation Market Garden" to the Battle of the Bulge to their capture of Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" at the end of World War II. While I haven't read the source material, it's safe to assume that the series, while reportedly a faithful adaptation, also understands the difference between visual and literary mediums. (The invariable demand by readers to simply "film the book" makes about as much sense as suggesting to play one on the piano.) Some episodes are relatively straightforward, while others employ flashback structures; some play like docudramas, while others are more artistic; a handful of the early episodes are spread out over a large ensemble, while a few of the later ones focus on specific characters. The result is the most pluralistic depiction of the Second World War (or any war) I have ever seen onscreen (any screen).

Alan Sepinwall, the best TV critic bar none, is winding down his current tour through Band of Brothers, and without stepping on his toes too much I want to offer some of my own impressions, having recently looked at the series again. My first thought is that this is a show that looks much stronger now than it did eight years ago, one that rewards repeated viewings. One of the original main criticisms -- and it still has validity -- was it takes a few episodes to sort out all the characters. While there are a few standouts in the crowd, namely central protagonist Richard "Dick" Winters (Damian Lewis), Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston), Buck Compton (Neil McDonough), Carwood Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), and Bill Guarnere (Frank John Hughes), many of the other actors are hard to tell apart in their identical uniforms. The second time around, it's easier to tell who's who and devote your concentration on the narrative.

Another thing that struck me was just how vividly Band of Brothers captures the ambiguity of war. Having ten hours to do this is a benefit that a feature film lacks, and the series takes advantage of this with several sequences that seem to indicate a particular stance on a topic only to then show a different point of view. A G.I. makes out with a Dutch woman during the celebratory liberation of a city in Holland, then shortly afterward this same woman is apprehended by her fellow citizens, who shave her head and mark her with a swastika. (It's explained that she, among others, slept with Nazi occupiers.) At Bastogne, a grunt is told not to complain about the incompetent new C/O (it's bad for morale), but then we see officers Winters and Nixon doing the same thing. Humanizing these men doesn't dilute their sacrifices and accomplishments; it elevates them, so that the war scenes never lose sight of the fragility of the lives involved.

And these scenes are among the most magnificent ever staged. One that Sepinwall discusses at length (in the fourth episode, titled "Replacements") features an elaborate set-piece involving a crawling soldier and a runaway tank that Spielberg in his hey-day would have been proud to make. There are several intense battles over the course of Band of Brothers, many of them examples of urban warfare (like the siege of Toye), a few in more rural or unpopulated areas (like a "turkey shoot" surprise attack on a couple of German companies). Yet my favorite moment in the entire series occurs early in episode two, "Day of Days," when Winters leads the jump out of his company's airplane, and in an unbroken shot the camera follows his parachute through the gun-battle and explosions down to the ground. It's a textbook example of staying focused on the human element amid the most sophisticated special effects.

There are a few problems with Band of Brothers, notably a lingering Ambrosian romanticism in the depiction of Lt. Spiers (Matthew Settle), the company's mystery man, rumored to have gunned down several German POWs after offering them cigarettes. (We see the latter moment but are not privy to the former.) Spiers has a moment of glorious bravado in arguably the best episode (#7), "The Breaking Point," where he rescues the company by running right past an astonished German force, then astonishes further by running safely back. But the impact of a key moment in an earlier episode (#3, "Carentan"), where he advises a terrified soldier that the only way to survive is to accept the fact that you're already dead, is dulled by the fact that it's bullshit. (The soldier who takes his advice ends up seriously wounded, whereas men of conscience, like Winters and Lipton, survive and enable others to do the same.) Spiers gets his edges somewhat softened without ever becoming fully humanized; he's the only character that Band of Brothers -- even when showing him looting later on -- wants us to see as both man and god.

Fortunately, the selfless and heroic Winters, played breathtakingly well by the British actor Damian Lewis, is always regarded on a human scale. (He's not above a little looting, either.) And the human cost of the war, on display throughout the series, comes to the forefront in the penultimate episode, appropriately titled "Why We Fight." From the perspective of its most jaded character, the wealthy, alcoholic Lewis Nixon, we follow Easy Company's liberation of a concentration camp, a turning-point that shakes Nixon out of his detachment. Before arriving at the camp comes a scene where Nixon, breaking into a Nazi officer's household (he's looking for booze), is shamed by the wife's steady glare of contempt. (Livingston, best known as the star of Mike Judge's satire Office Space, gives a lovely, understated performance.) At the end, the townspeople are ordered into the camp to bury the bodies; and in a reversal of the previous scene, Nixon's accusatory gaze shames the same woman into bowing her head. I've never experienced warfare, and with any luck never will. But in clear-eyed moments like this, Band of Brothers offers the closest glimpse many of us from subsequent generations will likely ever get to seeing it.


Jason Bellamy said...

Like you, I didn't see this on HBO. Came to it about a year ago, having read the book. (I wasn't aware of the Sepinwall "tour," so thanks for that link; I'll check it out.)

For me, the book was a significant influence on how I viewed the series in that there were a few episodes that I had imagined in the book that I became eager to see realized: (1) that attack on the German gun position that was lauded for its strategic excellence; (2) Winters' charge across an open field that was anything but brilliant and yet was one of those bravely stupid things that soldiers need to do in war from time to time if they want to win; (3) the engagement in which one of the commanders (can't remember his name) became paralyzed by fear; and (4) the arrival at Hitler's palace on the mountain.

It's to the series' credit that each one of these scenes lived up to my imagination. (Yes, folks, 'the movie was as good as the book,' in this case.) Then again, I have no idea how much of my excitement was provided by the book and my imagination.

Having only seen each episode once, I can't quote the names or say which ones were best. I seem to recall that about three of them achieved something close to "wow" status, but the rest I found quite good and yet forgettable. Well made, certainly, but not exceptional. Though I know people who have been through this series repeatedly, I don't feel the same urge to return to it.

One thing that's always bothered me about the films is how much each episode seems elevated by the interviews with the real-life participants at the end. I don't mean to imply that it's a cheap tactic. Truthfully, I treasure those moments. That generation is dying; we need to preserve their stories, and them telling their stories. Nevertheless, those quick documentary interviews seem crucial in many cases to the episode's lasting emotional punch. If the the removal of those interviews were to strip each episode of a considerable amount of its emotional heft, does that expose some kind of fault in the filmmaking? (Am I making sense?) I'm curious what you think.

Craig said...

That's a great question on another quality I love about this series. I think the "talking-head" interviews that open the first nine episodes (and close the tenth) are all of a piece with the narratives themselves. Had they been inserted haphazardly, like in "Reds," it might have been distancing or distracting. Here, though, the interviews usually introduce the general theme of a particular episode and then let each narrative go into the specifics. At first I found it confusing that the men weren't properly identified until the finale, but it's the right decision because it gets us to identify with the universal emotions that they talk about. It eases us into the framework of the story, so that we are there along with them, rather than watching them from a comfortable distance or through the haze of hagiography.

It's also telling what the interviews leave out. Following Alan's recent review of "Why We Fight," somebody commented that he thought it odd that the talking-heads that open that episode say nothing about the concentration camps. But to me that's a masterstroke because, again, it puts us squarely inside the headspace of these characters, who are jaded, battle weary, yet completely unprepared for what they are about to discover. When they happen upon the camp, we're as stunned as they are. It's a moment that gives the Holocaust back its power, and that's a significant achievement.

Anonymous said...

Band of Brothers is my all-time favorite War film and TV series and I appreciated reading your comments. Just to let you know, the brilliant actor that played Richard Winters spells his name as Damian Lewis (not Damien). It's a minor detail and I would have sent this to you privately if I had your email address. I figured that you would want to correct it.

Craig said...

Anon, thank you very much for your thoughts and for the correction. Don't know why I spelled it that way, but it's been fixed.

JD said...

I interpreted the veterans' comments as being supportive for this film. Like anonymous, this was my perfect war picture (*****) with or without their comments.

Well done.