Sometimes, the rules change. You think you're doing one sort of thing, and you end up in some other sort of situation entirely. For the most part, humans like having rigid codes of order. We like knowing what to expect at any given time, knowing how our opponent is going to react to what we do, so we can prepare to react to what they do. One of the major themes of HBO's terrific new miniseries, The Pacific, is the idea that the war in the Pacific was fought, island to island, on a battlefield where the rules were constantly shifting. Guerrilla warfare, though mostly in its infancy, was something that Allied soldiers (including our three point-of-view American characters) just weren't familiar enough with to know what to do with. The Pacific is a miniseries about tactics and adjustment, about trying not to lose yourself when the battle is shifting around you, about keeping your head when hell is erupting all around you.
There haven't been a lot of definitive cinematic accounts of the Pacific theater of action in World War II. (And, yes, all critics are required to mention this in their Pacific reviews.) To some degree, that's because the European theater features a fairly classic narrative structure, wherein the "good guys" come from behind to win the whole thing and save the world for freedom. There's a rough narrative progression from the early sweep of the Nazis across the continent to the British holding off against them to the Americans getting involved to D-Day to the final liberation of Europe (though most of these narratives largely downplay the role played by the Soviet Union in this struggle). It follows what were - and are largely still understood to be, by the layman - the standard rules of war. Enemies meet on a battlefield and vie with each other until one side is victorious. Sure, you had your blitzkrieg and your modern weapons and such, but for the most part, the European Theater boils down to fairly classic Western narrative structures, even on the level of an individual battle.
That's not necessarily the case with the Pacific theater. The whole thing moves in chaotic bursts of action that come at unpredictable measures. There's a scene in tonight's debut episode, "Part 1," where the Marines rush the beach of Guadalcanal and find … nothing. Just more Marines, who seem confused as to just where the enemy might be. This is a moment when they expect to storm the shores, to have several of their number cut down, to take the lives of the enemy. And, instead, they're greeted with a kind of free-floating anxiety, a paranoia that settles in early (hey, those coconuts might be poisoned) and doesn't ever fully go away. There's a reason the best film about the Pacific Theater, The Thin Red Line, mostly focuses on more philosophical concerns about the cost of war on a man's soul and the natural world around him. What there is to understand about the Pacific Theater in World War II is often something that eludes your grasp, that defies being easily understood at all. (We'll talk more about this in the weeks to come.)
"Part 1" is one of the lesser episodes of The Pacific, which is generally an excellent production all around but often seems to traffic in war movie cliche just to get things rolling. "Part 1" definitely has its share of those moments, as the world-weary intellectual comes up against the inhumanity of man and the general engages in spewing agitprop about how we're going to WIN this war, dammit, and the kid who can't go to war weeps to realize he can't. It's not to say that these scenes are bad, exactly, or that they're historically inaccurate. But you've seen them before. And you've often seen them done better. When The Pacific really gets going (as it does in a few episodes), it's like few other World War II depictions out there, and these scenes feel like every other World War II depiction out there.
"Part 1" introduces us to the three men who will be our focal points for the rest of the series. As this is a pseudo-sequel to Band of Brothers, this proves to be a good choice. Brothers sometimes had as an issue that its characters seemed ill-defined if they didn't have the right actors playing them. There were so many of them and so little time to differentiate them that the miniseries often felt as if it was filled with a bunch of types. Now, that built into that series' central thesis - these men truly became a band of brothers - but it sometimes frustrated when it wasn't immediately clear who was who or what was going on.
The Pacific's three focus characters are Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello), Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and Jon Basilone (Jon Seda). "Part 1," however, introduces us briefly to Sledge and Basilone - most notably in a warm and funny Christmas dinner scene where Basilone looks at his family for what might be the last time ever - before taking off to Guadalcanal with Leckie. The miniseries perhaps wisely skips over the scenes where Leckie trains to be a Marine, instead jumping straight into the action, and his time on Guadalcanal is harrowing indeed.
In its own way, The Pacific uses our knowledge of the war against us. Even those who don't know very much about what happened in World War II will know that Americans now know the name Guadalcanal for SOME reason (Leckie and the gang have never heard of it prior to going there). So the episode takes on a grim, rolling tension that builds and builds until it finally erupts in a nighttime firefight that's as chaotic and frightening as anything you can think of. I love the cinematography here, as the night bursts with bits of fire and the Japanese soldiers crossing the creek just down the way in the darkness seem like ghosts slowly making their way toward these men in a kind of ultimate nightmare.
The scenes after - with the Japanese soldier sacrificing himself to take out American soldiers and the showdown between the American soldiers and the lone Japanese soldier in the creek, one that turns cruel very rapidly - suggest that we're both going to be in standard war movie territory (you've seen variations on both of these scenes) and in a place where these moments become somehow intensely personal to these men, that there's an element of psychological horror going on here as well. Obviously, war takes its psychological toll on anyone who ventures into it, but in The Pacific, that toll comes from men who are realizing that the rug is being pulled out from under them at every given moment.
- I'll be writing up The Pacific every week between now and its end date. Hopefully, you'll continue to join me. The series is really terrific, and its final hours are genuinely moving in a way television rarely is (i.e. with a minimum of outright sentimentality). And while I took my fair share of history classes, I mostly know about the war on a broad, sweeping level. So if I get the facts wrong or if my analysis seems a little shallow, feel free to correct me!
- In the weeks to come, I'll hope to talk a little more about how the series presents the Japanese. One of the big problems with any Pacific Theater-oriented narrative is that the Japanese side often comes off seeming almost impossibly alien. While this is a necessary function of the fact that the cultural divide between the Americans and Japanese was larger than that between the Americans and Germans or Italians, it also often ends up creating faceless villains.
- And, hey, there's Caroline Dhavernas, whom I've been hoping would return to television sooner, rather than later. It's good to see her.
- Dale was a big flop on 24, but he really sells his role in The Pacific. Obviously, it's the sort of thing that builds over time, but you can see the seeds of what he becomes in this episode.
- And here's a plea: If you know the stories behind these men (which can be found online), please don't spoil them in comments. Part of what makes The Pacific work is that the stories of the men, while as true as they can be portrayed within a fictional construct, are also pretty unknown. Obviously, it's not a spoiler to say the Allies win World War II, but try to keep the fates of individual characters under wraps.