Eight months after Pearl Harbor, the 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal. Actors Tom Budge, James Badge Dale and Joshua Helman portray World War II marines Ronnie Gibson, Robert Leckie and Lew 'Chuckler' Juergens in the HBO miniseries The Pacific.
The Pacific, a 10-part historical miniseries beginning Sunday night on HBO, opens with events from the week after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. This saves a lot on production costs, but I'm guessing money wasn't the issue here: The Pacific has a budget of some $250 million — those are Avatar numbers — and it's more than twice what HBO spent for its 2001 companion piece, Band of Brothers.
This sudden entry into the drama, like the country's sudden entry into the war, throws us headlong into an unfamiliar world, against an unfamiliar foe, confronting terrain and tactics that are completely unlike the more familiar and regimented battlefields of Europe. At the start of the miniseries, a new group of Marine recruits attend a briefing by a lieutenant colonel, played by William Sadler. He's standing in front of a giant map of the Pacific, and he's telling his men what to expect once they arrive there. At the same time, he's telling us, too.
Each installment of The Pacific opens with a long shot of that map, with the camera pulling in tightly to identify the location of the coming conflict. Almost always, the camera ignores the major land masses, and the familiar countries and coastlines, homing in instead on an island speck so small, so seemingly insignificant, it's almost comic. Except that once the Marines land on these islands, it's all they know, and all there is.
And according to these unflinching battle re-creations, there's no escape and little reason, and the difference between life and death seems utterly random. It's impossible to look at that random violence, the unusual landscapes and elusive enemies in The Pacific and not draw parallels to, say, Afghanistan.
Actor Tom Budge plays Pfc. Ronnie Gibson in the HBO miniseries The Pacific. Filmed in Melbourne, the miniseries takes place in the Pacific theater during World War II.
Actor Tom Budge plays Pfc. Ronnie Gibson in the HBO miniseries The Pacific. Filmed in Melbourne, the miniseries takes place in the Pacific theater during World War II. David James/HBO
As in Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg's Band of Brothers and Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, battles aren't depicted from a distant, comprehensible perspective. Like the camera zooming in on those flyspeck islands, this miniseries zeroes in on a few key, fact-based characters, showing us things from their perspective. And from their perspective, every confrontation is filled with adrenaline and confusion, loyalty and fear. Even the tedium is tense, because the quiet can be shattered, at any time, by sniper fire and explosions. And many times, it is.
So many writers and directors collaborated on The Pacific that it's unwieldy to credit them individually. But the drama's three central actors, all based on Marines who wrote acclaimed accounts of their tours overseas, deserve special mention. James Badge Dale plays Pfc. Robert Leckie, who dreams of being a war correspondent. Joe Mazzello plays Pfc. Eugene Sledge, who arrives late to the Pacific conflict but quickly makes up for lost time. And Joe Seda plays John Basilone, whose actions in the Pacific get him promoted, then reassigned — but that's hardly the end of his story.
Seda, one of the talented stars of Homicide: Life on the Street, seems to have gotten younger somehow, and his portrayal of a kid who grows up quickly under fire is unforgettable. But there are other moments in this drama that are unforgettable, too. One of them — one gruesome one that I'll never be able to shake — occurs about six hours into the miniseries. The Marines have overtaken a Japanese bunker, and in the aftermath of battle, they're sitting around, in the same bunker as a dead Japanese machine gunner. That Japanese soldier, still in a firing position, has half of his skull shorn off. Where his brain used to be, there's now just an empty bowl, filled with a mixture of blood and rain. It's a horrible visual. What makes it even worse is that one of the Marines, sitting at a higher elevation, is amusing himself by tossing pebbles into the dead soldier's open skull. Some fellow Marines look on in disgust. Others don't even look up. What has war done to these young men?
That's the question this miniseries, even more than Band of Brothers, insists on asking, over and over. One hour is spent largely at a naval hospital with one soldier under psychiatric observation. Other episodes, when the narrative finds a way to take its characters to cities in Australia or back in the States, suggest that everything about the "civilized" settings — from the colors and the sounds to the comfort and the women — is a world apart from their harrowing wartime experience. The intensely frantic battle sequences in The Pacific underscore the fact that war is hell. But an equally resonant message of this excellent new miniseries is that returning from war, and bringing its memories with you, can be hellish, too.