With the names Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks attached to it and its gazillion-dollar budget, was there any doubt that The Pacific would be nothing less than spectacular? The 10-part WWII miniseries kicks off this Sunday, and it required watching for anyone who enjoys great television events.
It's unfair to compare The Pacific to its spiritual predecessor Band of Brothers, as the two approach the story of World War II from different flanks. Band of Brothers focused on a single platoon trekking across Europe. The Pacific follows the war-time lives of three soldiers (and a slew of others) enlisting in the service, battling in the Pacific theater, and--and this is what makes it startlingly different from BoB--following some of life's normal pursuits in their downtime.
Because of this, there's no singular storytelling structure. There's no end goal other than staying alive, there's no primary villain other than swarms of Japanese soldiers, and there's no sense of beginning, middle, and end. It's that sprawling war novel you were supposed to read in high school laid out on film.
The Pacific's prologue gets off to a slow start as the soldiers head off to war and say goodbye to their friends and families, but once they put on their combat helmets and land on Japanese-claimed islands, The Pacific delivers some of the most riveting scenes ever viewed in television.
The war scenes are amazing. We're talking tense firefights that last what seem like hours with exploding heads and arms dismembered. They're feature-film quality and on par with the violence splattered all over the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. One battle in Chapter Two is especially brutal, with--no exaggeration--about a hundred Japanese soldiers killed on camera in a span of minutes.
Because these are what most will tune in for, it can be a bit of a letdown when a chapter never even sees the soldiers in the field of battle (if you're simply bloodthirsty, you can skip Chapter Three which merely sees a pair of punches thrown). I had some resignations going into the series knowing that some of the focus wouldn't be on the war and would instead delve into the non-war lives of the soldiers, but they never get as cheesy as I feared. I've seen the first four chapters and I'd say these stories only comprise about thirty percent of the screen time.
But it's not just gunfire or skirt-chasing. Some of the most compelling parts of The Pacific happen when there's no enemy threat. Soldiers go a little loony, battle disease, and deal with the environment. In Chapter Four (my favorite of the four I saw), one of the three main characters has an eye-opening stint in a makeshift mental hospital, where the terrors he sees there are child's play compared to the onslaught of Japanese. It's a fine example of what The Pacific does well: making compelling television even when there are no bullets flying.
If I have one gripe with the series, it's the way the Japanese are handled. They're nothing more than faceless enemies that fight with relentless savagery.
But that can be forgiven with the excellent production, epic battle sequences, and heavy tales of war. More than once you will watch the ending credits in complete stunned silence. If you don't have HBO yet, now would be a good time to get your money's worth.
The Pacific premieres Sunday March 14 on HBO.