The Pacific was a disappointment.
Expectation had been huge for the show. It didn’t deliver. I was expecting another mini-series the equal of Band of Brothers, an epic story of war and comradeship in the face of unrelenting horror.
Instead I got staring.
There seems to be a movement out there to shout down those comparing The Pacific with Band of Brothers. They claim there are too many differences: The Pacific focuses on just three soldiers, not an entire company, is based on three memoirs rather than a single history and deals with a vastly different conflict.
I disagree. They are both 10 part shows created by HBO following a specific unit through a WWII campaign. Each show places special focus on specific soldiers. And fighting is fighting; the main part of the show shouldn’t be combat related.
The Pacific had plenty going for it: the combat scenes are good and a number of episodes are great pieces of entertainment. But no episode is perfect, something Band of Brothers doesn’t share (don’t tell me The Last Patrol or Why We Fight had flaws).
We start off in the US, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbour attack. Where Band of Brothers spent the entire opening episode on the training and pre deployment of the soldiers, The Pacific gives us 20 or so minutes introducing our characters before they even begin their training, then jumps right up to the landing at Guadalcanal. Whose idea was that? Did they think that we needed action almost immediately? I could have waited a week guys.
We’re rapidly introduced to Leckie and Basilone, our two main Marines. To emphasise how little I cared about these characters, it took a number of episodes before I could remember their names. Not a good sign. I didn’t find myself caring about them or empathizing at all. The dialogue was stale and uninteresting. Interactions with the enemy, racist in nature. During a fire fight in the second episode, Basilone does something very heroic, but I couldn’t have told you what it was until the writers spelt it out for me. That’s the downside of portraying a night-time battle: the audience isn’t quite sure what’s going on (I had confused Basilone with another character who died. I was a little shocked when he got commended for bravery the following week.)
Episode three changed the trend around though. Showing the Marines’ RnR in Melbourne was an excellent choice for an episode and Leckies subplot with his Australian lover was brilliantly executed. Finally we got to see the Marines as people. Still, only Leckie and Basilone remained as the real faces: I couldn’t name any other characters and I didn’t care that much either. This was a bad thing, as Basilone essentially vanished for most of the following four episodes and Leckie didn’t have much screen time left either.
Episode four attempted to do what the Band of Brothers episode Bastogne had done: portray the horror or war outside of combat, in the effects of disease and the environment. It failed utterly. Leckie was apparently supposed to be humanized by the portrayal of him getting sick and being sent to the army loony bin: instead he comes off as weak and effeminate, casually trading jokes with the camp doctor while the war rages around him.
At this point, we get a new main character: Eugene Sledge, a mortar team Marine. Sledge becomes the main focus, with Leckie saying goodbye in the next episode and Basilone having to make do with retardedly short, utterly pointless snippets of his time back at home, cuts that could easily have been integrated into episode 8.
Leckie, along with his sidekick Snafu, your classic unhinged Marine, are the stars of the Peleliu trilogy of episodes, which I would consider to be among the worst pieces of historical drama ever created. We have a mortar team, an under portrayed part of the military machine, but instead of some good portrayals of a battlefield artillery squad saving the day, we get staring.
The thousand yard stare is an important staple of the war genre, but The Pacific writers tried to make it at art form in these episodes. For whatever reason, dialogue takes a backseat in these episodes. Instead we get staring.
They stare when they march. They stare when they have breakfast. They stare when the CO gives orders. They stare when they play golf, they stare when they listen to a speech. They stare when someone gets wounded, they stare when Gunny gets mad, they stare when they kill a soldier, they stare when they write, they stare in fucking combat, they stare when they win. They also stare at nurses, stare at orange juice, stare at insignia, stare at the ocean and then stare at each other.
Always that same, dead stare, every time they do anything. The writers seem to think showing how traumatic the battle was is enough. It’s not. The theme of this particular part of the series seems to be Sledge’s deteriorating mental state, but it’s clumsily done. They don’t talk enough and it’s infuriating. When they do converse we get baffling scenes, such as the conclusion of episode seven, where Snafu dissuades Sledge from cutting some gold from the teeth of a dead Japanese soldier. Snafu is the king of this activity and no explanation is given for his sudden change of heart. Is it really medical as he indicates? Sounds like bullshit coming out of his mouth. Change of heart about the Japanese? Hardly, seeing as he casually desecrates a different Japanese body during the same scene. Concerned about Sledge’s wellbeing? Perhaps but it’s just not clear. The audience is just supposed to get it, and we’re moving on. I suppose I did empathize with Sledge a bit here: I was just as confused as he was.
Episode eight, we leave Sledge and the stare brigade and return to Basilone. This episode is preceded, much like the others, by a three minute narration from Tom Hanks. This time, it’s about how bloody and horrible Iwo Jima was. This is a confusing way to begin, since it’s followed by 45 minutes of Basilone chasing a female NCO around.
What we have in episode eight is The Pacific’s big problem: a horribly clichéd plot which is based off things that actually happened. It’s a sickeningly stereotypical story: a decorated war hero, unhappy with the adulation he’s receiving. He meets a feisty, independent minded woman. He pursues her, she rejects him. He continues to pursue her anyway. She eventually relents, they rip off the beach scene from From Here To Eternity, they marry. They have sex and the man goes back to war. He gets killed performing an act of immense bravery and our final shot is the wife, looking at a sunset. Barf. All that’s missing is her being pregnant.
The plot is cliché to the hilt, but the writers did the best with the material that they had, and it was a big improvement over the Peleliu disaster. As soon as Basilone’s story is over, we’re back with Stare Company on Okinawa.
Thankfully, the writers have uped their game here. Two things are done very well here. Firstly, a large part of the episode is given over to the civilian tragedy of the battle, something that is often ignored in history. Secondly, we get an excellent portrayal of the soldiers finally. The experiences of Sledge and Snafu, the battle scarred volunteer soldiers, is directly compared with the new draftees. The characters actually talk. Suddenly they are more than just emotionless shells. That’s not to say everything is perfect. An outburst by Sledge where he extols his intention to “kill Japs with his bare hands” if he has to is hilariously over the top. It’s like something a 10 year old would write if you asked him what he thinks a battle hardened Marine sounds like.
A quick point: little effort is given over to portraying the Japanese as anything other than faceless enemy. The only exception is the Okinawa episode, where Sledge is forced to confront his hatred of the enemy through the experience of the civilians. Nicely done.
Anyway, Sledge and Snafu make it through and the war ends. Everyone goes home and we get a fairly fascinating look at post-war life in America. Every character gets a bit of closure: Basilone’s widow meets her grieving in-laws in another bit of cliché storytelling. Leckie meets the girl of his dreams and tells people he “fought for television” in a well executed dinner scene. And Sledge and the other Marines have difficulty saying goodbye to each other and adjusting to life without staring.
Like a lot of the series, it’s an average episode filled with excellent moments. In particular, Snafu’s awkward goodbyes are a good illustration of the difficulties Marines had returning home. Maybe that was the point of the Peleliu stupidity, but its an awful lot of bullshit for this ending scene.
We also get another extremely ham-fisted scene where Sledge tries to sign up for college and loses it a little. The Pacific is just filled with this kind of stuff and it seriously detracts from the quality of the series.
The series concludes with a montage of “what happened after” screens. The only problem is that their were around 20 of them and I only really recognized four of those. Bad stuff.
So, a missed opportunity to really create some good television from what is very compelling historical background. A shame.
Still, the theme tune is pretty good.