Spielberg, Hanks deliver worthy follow-up to ‘Band of Brothers’

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service | Boulder Weekly

With each passing day, more World War II veterans are dying, taking with them valuable shards of history. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks keep doing what they can to ensure that their valiant efforts burn brightly in our memories.

The Hollywood
heavyweights who famously joined forces on “Saving Private Ryan” and
“Band of Brothers” return to the combat zone once again as executive
producers of HBO’s “The Pacific,” an awe-inspiring 10-part, $200 million miniseries that recalls America’s gruesome war against Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Unlike the masterful “Band of Brothers,” which followed a single company of Army paratroopers in the from Normandy into Germany, this Emmy-ready companion piece tracks the real-life journeys of three Marines — Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello) and John Basilone (Jon Seda) — as they fiercely battle the Japanese on a series of remote specks of turf they’d never heard of: Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa.

As the saga unfolds, their paths occasionally
intersect, but each has his own story to tell. Leckie, a budding
journalist, pens contemplative letters to a woman back home he barely
knows. Sledge, the idealistic son of wealthy parents, is at first kept
out of the war by a heart condition, but eventually finds himself
trapped in an existence more hellish than he ever imagined. Basilone, a
former boxer, commits a stunning act of bravery that turns him into an
instant hero who is considered by his government to be more useful as a
celebrity pitch man for war bonds on the home front than a fighter in
the trenches.

With this multipronged approach, “The Pacific,” at
times, feels less cohesive than “Band of Brothers.” And though it is
packed with high-caliber performances, this cast doesn’t quite match
its predecessor — man for man — in terms of on-screen magnetism. One
notable exception is Rami Malek, who as a brash, droopy-eyed warrior nicknamed “Snafu” is a major scene-stealer.

In other ways, however, “The Pacific” trumps
“Brothers.” The thunderous battle scenes, for example, might be the
most harrowingly visceral ever put on film. They plunge us deep into a
frenetic chaos of noise, blood, anxiety and human carnage until we’re
practically gasping for breath. The film’s multiple directors seem
determined not to spare our feelings, but intensify them. This is not a
production for the squeamish.

In that same vein, the filmmakers also pay
meticulous, unflinching attention to the ghastly conditions imposed
upon the troops by jungle warfare: Torrential rain, brutal heat,
dysentery, malaria, rats, maggots and rotting corpses all around. The
physical and mental toll is palpable and you can’t help but watch “The
Pacific” without wondering how you might have fared if forced to endure
such nightmarish misery in the name of freedom.

Although the miniseries focuses on a conflict waged
more than a half-century ago, it carries a chilling, modern-day
resonance. The Japanese, after all, were similar to al-Qaida in the way
they eschewed conventional warfare and fought with a fanatical,
self-sacrificial fervor that, at times, resorted to suicide bombings.

Like a good novel, “The Pacific” tightens its grip
on you with each chapter. Some of the most emotionally powerful moments
come in Part 9, directed by Tim Van Patten (“The Sopranos”). It finds an exhausted Sledge and his comrades on Okinawa,
where they cope with thorny moral dilemmas heightened by the presence
of civilians. It’s one of the most beautifully crafted — and
heart-wrenching — hours of television you’ll ever see.

As its lofty production price tag suggests, “The
Pacific” is bursting with epic sprawl and extravagance. But like any
effective film of its kind, it also contains a brand of intimacy that
will have you bonding with its characters and caring deeply about their
fates.

Spielberg, Hanks and company have once again managed
to delve beyond the mythic layers of WWII to find a beating heart.
Ultimately, that’s their greatest gift to the Greatest Generation.

THE PACIFIC

9 p.m. ET Sundays (through May 16)

HBO

(c) 2010, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

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