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Actor Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg teamed up to tell the story of World War II in Europe with the HBO series "Band of Brothers." Nine years later, they're back to tell another part of the war's story.

TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI: "The Pacific," a 10-part historical miniseries beginning Sunday night on HBO, opens 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.

(Soundbite of HBO miniseries, "The Pacific")

Mr. WILLIAM SADLER (Actor): (as Colonel Lewis Chesty Puller) The Japanese are in the process of taking half of the world and they mean to keep it, the depth from the air, land and sea. Heres what the Japs are not expecting, the United States Marine Corps. Now, never mind your Nazis, Mussolini, Hitler is not going to be our job - not until they can't whip 'em without us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SADLER: (as Colonel Lewis Chesty Puller) Pacific will be our theater of war. Marines will do battle with Japs on tiny specs of turf that we have never heard of. You, non-commissioned officers, you are the sinew and the muscle of the corps. The orders come from the brass and you get it done. Whenever this war is over, when we have swept upon the main islands of Japan and destroyed every scrap of that empire, the strategy will have been that of others. The victory will have been won by you.

BIANCULLI: 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, and hones in on an island speck so small, so seemingly insignificant, it's almost comic. Except that once the Marines land on those islands, it's all they know, and all there is.

And according to these unflinching battle re-creations, there's no escape, 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.

As in "Band of Brothers" and Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," battles aren't depicted from a distant, comprehensible perspective. Like the camera honing in on a flyspeck on a Pacific map, this miniseries zeroes in on a few key, fact-based characters and shows 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" 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 upon 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 those 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 World War II miniseries is that returning from war, and bringing its memories with you, can be hell, too.

GROSS: David Bianculli writes tvworthwatching.com and is the author of the new book "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." He reviewed "The Pacific," which premiers Sunday on HBO.

You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you can download Podcasts of our show freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

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GROSS: The Gospels are at odds with each other on important points about the life and death of Jesus.

On the next FRESH AIR, we talk with Bible scholar Bart Ehrman about these contradictions and what they tell us about the historical Jesus and the authors of the Gospels. That's the subject of his book "Jesus Interrupted" which just came out in paperback.

Join us for the next FRESH AIR.

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