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THE PACIFIC (HBO)
(Sundays at 9:00/8:00c)
The network's description: "This epic ten-part miniseries tracks the intertwined odysseys of three U.S. Marines Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello) and John Basilone (Jon Seda) across the vast canvas of the Pacific Theater during World War II. It follows these men and their fellow Marines from their first battle with the Japanese on Guadalcanal, through the rain forests of Cape Gloucester and the strongholds of Peleliu, across the bloody sands of Iwo Jima and through the horror of Okinawa, and finally to their triumphant but uneasy return home after V-J Day. The HBO Miniseries presentation of a Playtone and DreamWorks production is executive produced by Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman, the producing team behind the Emmy(R)- and Golden Globe-winning 2001 HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers"; Hanks and Goetzman also executive produced the 2008 HBO miniseries "John Adams," which won a record 13 Emmys(R). Debuts March 14."
What did they leave out? Look for some great supporting work by William Sadler ("Traveler") as legendary Marine "Chesty" Puller; Conor O'Farrell ("CSI: Crime Scene Investigation") as Sledge's father; and Matt Craven ("Raines") as Leckie's shrink. Also keep an eye out for a cameo by "Fringe's" Anna Torv as a Hollywood starlet.
The plot in a nutshell: In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, three men long for the chance to serve their country as Marines. Sportswriter Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) wants nothing more than to get away from a family that treats him like an afterthought; John Basilone (Jon Seda), having already spent time in the Philippines with the Army, is eager to get on the front lines with the Corps; and Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello) is crushed by the news a heart murmur will sideline him from enlisting for now, as he can only watch as best friend Sidney Phillips (Ashton Phillps) goes off to war without him. "The Pacific" then tracks each of their intersecting stories over the next four years - from the battles at Guadalcanal to Peleliu to Iwo Jima to ultimately Okinawa and back home.
In those four years each of our heroes goes through their own trial: for Leckie, it's the horrors of what he's signed on to be a part of; for Basilone, it's the guilt of having to leave his soldier brethren behind for a different cause; and for Sledge, it's watching his morality get swallowed up by the darkness that is war. It's best not to say much more than that as while it's obviously based on actual events, exploring the details - and how it relates to our trio - is half the enjoyment.
What works: As with "Band of Brothers," "The Pacific" feels like a giant event - its reported $200 million budget is evidenced virtually everywhere, from its seemingly endless battles to its sprawling cast. It also thankfully isn't a retread of "Brothers" as you quickly discover the tactics and fighting styles of the Americans and Japanese were decidedly different from the European theatre. Here each battle consists of trying to push each other off tiny islands, where the Americans are often outnumbered or surrounded by the Japanese Navy (or vice versa). More problematic however is that usually the Marines were undersupplied (get ready for lots of shots of maggoty rice) while the Japanese never surrendered, even if it meant sending hundreds of outgunned men against waves of American machine guns.
Those facets put the squeeze on the souls of our heroes as they practically starve in order to take over a piece of land they just learned about the day before they were deployed, all the while wrestling with having to literally exterminate every face they see that didn't look them. It's a much more grey look at war than "Brothers," as everyone must constantly remind themselves their cause is just, all the while killing an enemy that has been commanded by their god, the Emperor of Japan, to do the same to them. It was enough to make many of the men crack as both Sledge and Leckie wrestle with attacks on their sanity and morality, respectively. Basilone's trial then comes in the form of having to be sent home early after the Marines decide the Medal of Honor he earned at Guadalcanal will be more useful as a fund raising tool for war bonds rather than keeping him with his brothers in arms.
They're each interesting lenses to view the war and the actors - Dale, Mazzello and Seda - prove to be interesting actors to serve as our touchstones. It was much to my surprise though that the two non-battle episodes - hours three and eight - actually proved to be my favorite. In the former, Leckie finds a new family in Australia while on leave - only to be confronted by the reality he'll be forced to leave them; while in the latter, Basilone, finally on the cusp of returning to his unit, meets a woman (Annie Parisse, never better) who actually gives him pause to stay behind. They're each heartbreaking hours of television, and like the aforementioned differences from "Brothers," add compelling new facets to the overall portrayal of World War II provided by Spielberg, Goetzman, Hanks and company.
What doesn't: On the flip side, "The Pacific" features some of the same flaws as "Brothers," namely it's almost impossible - aside from the leads - to keep track of who everyone is. There were several occasions where I thought person X was killed, only to have it turn out to be person Y, and vice versa. Said scenario however makes those who stand out all the more impressive. For instance, Henry Nixon (2ndLt. Hugh Corrigan) and Scott Gibson (Capt. Andrew Haldane) are revelations here as the sole calming voices amongst the sea of scared 18-year-old boys. They both need to be on television on a regular basis.
The other challenge of "The Pacific" is despite maps and arrows telling us where and when we are, we never really understand what's going on strategically with the war. Sure we're told in passing that they need to capture a landing strip and so forth but it would have been nice to get a better sense about the overall strategy in the war. Obviously from an emotional standpoint that adds to the soldiers' fears of "what are we doing here" but as a viewer it's a little bit frustrating.
The bottom line: If you enjoyed "Band of Brothers," there's no doubt you'll enjoy this. And if you've never seen "Band of Brothers," well now you have 20 hours of television worth checking out.