The two-fisted, ten-part WW II series The Pacific (Sunday on HBO) cost more than one-tenth as much money as the North spent on the Civil War. Was it a good investment? Depends on how you look at it. And I would look at it – this Sunday’s second episode, a propulsive plunge into the war’s first heroically enormous battle, 1943’s Guadalcanal, is way better than last week’s pokey-paced intro episode, and don’t worry about coming in late. You’ll get to know the band of brothers and the three main characters quick enough, spotlit by flares in the tropical fog of war.
The debut show got about one-fifth more viewers than HBO’s superb John Adams, twice as many as the inspired yet arguably shark-jumping Big Love, and less than half as many as the Tom Hanks/Spielberg Band of Brothers. Series fan David Frum (a smart, scary ex-Bush speechwriter) says that’s because Band of Brothers came out two days before 9/11, when the sight of saintly Americans kicking crazy fascist ass held mass appeal. Plus, everybody knows from Nazis – even ignorant Americans know the way from Omaha Beach to Auschwitz – while nobody remembers the obscure island-hopping Pacific campaign. And liberating Auschwitz makes a more crowdpleasing finale than liquidating Nagasaki.
Nobody ever wrote a bestseller called Is Peleliu Burning? Audie Murphy and John Basilone won Medals of Honor respectively in Europe and the Pacific; only Audie starred in To Hell and Back.
But Basilone is one of three real-life heroes of The Pacific, along with soldier and author wannabe Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge, who enlisted despite a heart murmur. Jon Seda, a Jersey boxer like Basiolone (and vet of Homicide), does a muscular job of dramatizing the big guy’s feats – like firing a mammoth Browning M1919 machine gun for three days straight, and dodging bullets to retrieve more ammo.
James Badge Dale, Kiefer Sutherland’s torture-boy second banana on 24 episodes of 24, aces the Leckie part. His wry look recalls young Cliff Robertson playing JFK in PT 109, only poetic and sensitive, which JFK wasn’t. Joe Mazzello, who still looks a lot like he did stuck in the truck in the tree in Jurassic Park, has more to cower about now as Pacific PFC Eugene Sledge, though his heart of course heroically shouts instead of murmuring.
The show bristles with sharp details you know they researched to death. The Japanese skull mounted outside the Marines’ shower, the maggots writhing in rice rations (“Think of it as meat”), the godlike nimbus behind the head of a guy hauling you off a rope ladder aboard ship, the ominous significance when an officer tosses lowly battle-bound grunts his last precious pack of Lucky Strikes instead of the crappy Raleighs they usually get (“We’re fucked now!”), the tinny tininess of guys shouting at you right after a shell blows your buddies’ heads off one foxhole over.
War-simulating technology is worlds ahead of 2001’s Band of Brothers, and The Pacific is as utterly, noisily immersive as any battle I ever saw on TV. I wish I could say the dialog between explosions packs the power HBO ordinarily boasts. On average, HBO makes broadcast TV sound stupid. The Pacific is intelligent and no doubt authentic, but the talk is just not as sharp as you’d expect. The story is poorly shaped, partly because we don’t know the history the way we do Private Ryan’s stomping grounds. But hey, we know John Adams’ times even less, and that series made history make sense dramatically in a way The Pacific does not.
Eugene Kelly was co-exec producer of The Pacific and Rome. Why is Roman history easier to follow than 1940s history?
Maybe this defect will be remedied in coming episodes penned by The Wire auteur George Pelecanos, Pulitzer-winning Robert Schenkkan (who played Remmick in Star Trek: The Next Generation), Laurence Andries of Six Feet Under, and Michelle Ashford from John Adams.
Even when the dialogue is wooden, the story has steely authority, and the cinematography is in medias res right in your face. It occurs to me that the reason I’m here watching The Pacific is that my uncle Cato Swalling, the most literary-minded member of his family, got killed during the Pacific campaign it depicts. Calculating his odds, he’d bought the Navy’s optional triple-value life insurance. The payout sent my mom to college to meet my dad. The Bomb prevented my dad’s ship from leaving Dutch Harbor and invading Japan (which, as HBO dramatizes, set a world record for casualties suffered and nastily inflicted). My mom, a straight-A science student, forbade him to sign up as secretary for a skipper at the next A-bomb test in the Pacific.
I’ll be watching next Sunday’s explosive episode.