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The Pacific: "Part Six"

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"Part 6" of The Pacific is maybe the miniseries' most harrowing hour yet. Roughly the first two-thirds of it are dedicated to a grueling charge to take bombed out facilities and oust Japanese soldiers from them, to better establish a beachhead on the godforsaken rock of Peleliu. With Sledge and Leckie as our constants, the hour lays out exactly why these facilities are desirable and how they're going to be taken with a minimum of fuss and then gets down to the business of sending the men in to take them.

It's some more Saving Private Ryan-esque action, but what it has in common with that film (and doesn't have in common with many of the film's latter-day imitators) is that it's always absolutely clear where everybody is in relation to each other and the objective and it's clear how this plan is coming together and what everyone's role is in it. There's a minimum of exposition to lay all of this out, too. Pretty much, the hour just sticks us in the thick of it and expects us to catch up, then gives us the information necessary to know what's going on. It's very nearly a marvel of visual storytelling.

But as I rewatch this hour and am blown away by the way it mixes its sense of what's going on with its sense of where the characters are (both physically and mentally) in the midst of everything else and a sense of the very sensation of being on this island and in this battle, I find myself wondering more and more just why critics and commenters seem to have such a different opinion of the series. Both here and at Alan Sepinwall's blog, there's a vocal contingent in the comments section that thinks the series has simply bitten off more than it can chew and is not compelling. It's rare, I think, to see THIS much of a disconnect between the people dishing out the opinions and the people dishing their opinions right back. Sure, you can almost always find someone who disagrees with you, but a vocal group of them? That's rare.

Please note that I don't think those of you who have yet to be sucked in by The Pacific are wrong. I enjoyed hours one and two but wasn't quite sure why it was getting the heady praise it was receiving. It took hour three to really invest me in the series and its characters, and I wasn't wholly down with the battle stuff until last week's episode, when it finally coalesced for me. I prefer the miniseries (both as a whole and up until this hour) to Band of Brothers, but not by so much that I think anyone who disagrees is someone who's "wrong." Furthermore, I can often see the points you guys are making as to your problems with the series, particularly in regards to its seeming lack of interest in simply sitting down and just telling us the story of these men and their journey through the war. It's a far less straightforward piece than Band of Brothers, far more interested in exploring the tactile sensations of war than the story of the campaign as it was actually fought, and that's never going to be for everyone.

Me, though, I prefer The Thin Red Line - a war movie that's about the sensations of being at war if ever there was one - to Saving Private Ryan (though both are very good films). After ages and ages of stories about small groups of men who come together in conflict and become the fastest and best of friends (stretching back to the Greeks), I love a story that tries to put me in the headspace of someone who does not what is easy but what is necessary and examines the cost of those choices and the way those choices play havoc with their psyches. At the same time, I've been pondering other reasons this might be causing such a split between critics and commenters, and I've arrived at some possible reasons.

1.) Critics have seen the whole thing. This is the easiest explanation. We know where all of this is going and can say, "Rest assured, all of this will come together in the end." But I don't think that's it. As mentioned above, the story was really interesting me by hour three, and it seems that that's the point where it lost some of you. Having the whole thing on DVD also helped smooth over the rough patches for those of us who watched it in a few big gulps, as watching any TV series on DVD does. (Someday, I'm going to commission a study of people who watch TV on DVD trying to pick up with a series in one of its traditional broadcast season and see how many of them suddenly find the show they love to be slow-moving.) I'm rewatching each episode as I write these pieces, pretending I don't know what's coming as best I can, but it definitely is easier to let what seems to be a stupid move on the part of the production slide when I know what's coming.


2.) It's historically inaccurate. This comes with an asterisk, as the historical inaccuracy mostly comes from conflating events that took much longer into a shorter period of time for the sake of keeping the narrative moving. Reading over the Wikipedia article on the Battle of Peleliu, I can see some places where it seems like tonight's episode took some liberties with timeframe and with which characters did what. The story takes place over years of time, but in the miniseries, it often seems like only a few weeks have passed (a common problem with TV stories that take place over long periods of time). And the individual episodes will often invent scenes that likely didn't happen for the sake of dramatizing some of the inner monologues the Marines were turning over and over, as in last week's scene between Leckie and Sledge or this week's scene with Sledge talking about his dog back home and then staring at the dog across the way. This largely doesn't bother me. As mentioned above, I'm more interested in experience - in feeling just how terrible the thirst these guys had as they waited for battle to begin was - than in a story that proceeds from point A to point B and reflects what happened. But a lot of people (probably the majority) would prefer to see the tale of the battle as it happened, and I can't deny that that would also be appealing (and could potentially have included some of the things I enjoy as well).

3.) It's huge. Someone in comments last week was saying that the series took on too big of a picture. It's trying to tell the stories of three Marines in three entirely different situations, and all three take extended breaks from the action. To some degree, this was necessary to stay with the war for the entirety of its run - stay with Leckie, and you miss the portion starting next week when he's injured after this week's episode; stay with Basilone or Sledge, and you miss long portions stateside - but it has meant that the supporting characters have gotten only the slightest bit of development, and it's also meant that traditional war story trappings - like the men bonding with their COs or the brotherhood that builds up among a company - fall by the wayside. This is, by and large, trying to be the psychological study of how three men are changed and affected by the war. I think it succeeds in that fashion (watch how Sledge tries to fend off his own fear in tonight's episode and then realizes everyone around him is terrified), and that's why I find it so compelling. But it makes enough head fakes toward being a traditional war story that I'm not surprised when lots of people find it hard to swallow in that regard. (Indeed, it's taken me a long time to figure out how to respond to the comment pointed out above, simply because it was so well-argued that I was briefly terrified I was completely wrong.)


It all comes down to what you're looking for and what you expect, I think. I do have certain advantages to approaching this material in that I've seen what's to come, but I also remember the way I was gripped by this as I watched it the first time, the way this episode, in particular, seemed like a masterful piece of storytelling, as the chaos of the war unfolded both for the characters and seemingly all around me in my living room. I think that we often place too fine a point on the idea that a movie or TV show gives you the sense that you are really there - a little distance isn't the worst thing in the world - but this hour of The Pacific really, really seemed to be placing me directly in the heat of battle. If you didn't like it, I suppose I can see why, but I heartily, heartily disagree.

Stray observations:

  • Again, the production values here are top notch. Favorite shot: The Japanese soldiers looking out over the smoky vista before them, trying to figure out just where the Marines would come from next.
  • Leckie and his friend meeting up again on board the ship at the end was another nice moment, and I loved the final shot of the ship leaving the island, now a burned out husk of itself, smoke and explosions rising from what was likely a peaceful vista before the war.
  • The scene where the Marines have to dispose of the man who's screaming with a shovel is just brutal.
  • It sure seems like every episode starts up on the homefront, and while I'm not sure we need these scenes, I liked seeing the Sledges welcome Sid back home from the war.