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TELEVISION REVIEW: 'The Pacific'

HBO's retelling of America's war against Japan is mostly excellent, though it does have that Spielberg touch.

March 12, 2010|By Robert Lloyd TELEVISION CRITIC >>>

It was inevitable after the popular and critical success of their 2001 World War II miniseries "Band of Brothers," which told the story of the drive to conquer Hitler and Mussolini, that executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg would return to finish the job. “The Pacific,” which tells the story of the war against Japan, is here -- it begins Sunday on HBO -- and is its forerunner's equal in emotive strength, weird poetry and technical bravura; it is also, if memory of the first series serves, an even more brutal and unnerving experience, appropriate to a war fought in tropical extremes against an enemy for whom surrender was not an option.

I'll say now, before I get down to picking its nits -- it has a few, and most might be predicted from the Spielberg oeuvre -- that it's a splendid production, absolutely worth watching in its 10-hour entirety. It is full of remarkable things, from the measured, modulated performances of its large cast of stars and supporting players -- universally excellent and life-sized, even when a speech or moment invites overplaying -- to the clamorous staging and brilliant editing of the battle scenes, so awash in chaos, so seemingly random in their progress, that it's difficult to work out how any of it was accomplished.

There is perhaps too much of the stuttering shutter-speed effect, familiar from "Saving Private Ryan," that has come to stand for action too quick to comprehend, but it does its job.

And while I object in general to slow-motion death scenes -- it is especially jarring in a film that strives so mightily for veracity -- the series' one instance does merit the effect.

Based largely on two first-person accounts -- "Helmet for My Pillow" by Robert Leckie (played here by James Badge Dale) and "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa" by Eugene Sledge ( Joseph Mazzello), with Medal of Honor-winner John Basilone (Jon Seda) as the third dramatic anchor -- the series presents only a slice of the war, following the 1st Marine Division through battles on Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa, Cape Gloucester and, briefly, Iwo Jima; for tonal variation and audience relief, there are also excursions to Melbourne, Australia, for R&R, and back to America, as Basilone is sent around the country selling war bonds.

The series begins with a stateside preamble, and ends with an episode set entirely after the war, as the survivors attempt to come back into the world.

As to the progress of the war, almost nothing is explained; we get only a glimpse at a map to show us where we are. (The why is not always so clear, past taking whatever piece of rock the Marines find themselves upon.) We are at war, and in war; the view is almost entirely that of enlisted men and noncommissioned officers, and extends no farther than they can see themselves. The rest of the world is nothing but a dream. (The dropping of the atomic bomb is presented as just another passing rumor.) Although we are given plenty of emotional information about our main characters, the series is less a narrative than a kind of tone poem, alternating moments of dark and light, quiet and loud, action and rest.

The limited point of view also means that, as in "Band of Brothers," the enemy is a remote, mostly dehumanized presence -- or a charging, immediate one that the complicit viewer is only too happy to see shot down, blown up or stabbed clean through. There is some attention paid to keep things on the near side of racism -- the Japanese soldier, Basilone tells a platoon of eager recruits, is not "a bucktooth cartoon dreamed up by some [expletive deleted] on Madison Avenue to sell soap," and every so often we're allowed to feel their pain. Just so, there are scenes of American soldiers acting less than what we usually like to think of as human.

"Next war," says one character, "there's going to be two men missing, me and the MP they send after me." Because it is so graphically violent, it is by nature an antiwar movie, and not a "patriotic" one, even as it is intently pro-soldier, sailor and Marine.

And it is most certainly a movie -- a Hollywood creation put together by screenwriters, casting directors, cinematographers, directors, decorators, lighting technicians, makeup artists. Here and there it edges near some old war-movie cliche -- the ironic death, the ravaged soul redeemed -- though it does not linger there long.

But even as it makes death vivid -- and the dead here do not look like waxworks -- it cheats as often, as most every movie does, in favor of what's pretty and living: The men are all handsome, the women are all pretty, and even the ruins of earth and men may be beautifully shot and composed.

Slow strings pointlessly underscore most every scene over which we are meant to reflect or to feel sad (and as in all Spielberg productions, scenes of "home" are bathed in immaculate, soft light).

There is a sliver of romance that ineluctably works in between the original thing and its filmic portrayal -- indeed, the filmmakers have found room for love scenes, including a suggestion of "From Here to Eternity," and for sex scenes -- just as there are depths that even the best-equipped, best-funded band of movie people cannot plumb or re-create, only suggest.

As one character says of the Grand Canyon, in dialogue that seems calculated to reflect upon the enterprise at hand, "Pictures don't show it. You have to be there, looking down into it."

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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