Shifting to the other theater of war from “Band of Brothers,” “The Pacific” at times seems weighted down by an obvious desire to trumpet its importance in all caps — and suffers when compared not only with that 2001 HBO miniseries but with Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers”/”Letters From Iwo Jima,” to which there are unavoidable parallels. With its gaudy pricetag and glittering auspices, this 10-parter almost demands to be admired in its broad strokes, but yields fitful satisfaction in its particulars. While powerful sequences emerge, they’re simply spaced too liberally across this ambitious project’s epic, blood-splattered canvas.
Drawing from a trio of books as well as interviews with veterans, “The Pacific” and its big-artillery filmmaking team chronicle World War II through the eyes (primarily) of three unconnected soldiers. Opening shortly after Pearl Harbor, the first hour cursorily introduces characters before quickly diving into battle, where the images of combat are every bit as chaotic, brutal and gory as one would expect from a Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg collaboration dealing with this material.
Gradually, the narrative zeroes in on three Marines, whose tales unfold in zig-zagging fashion: The thoughtful Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), who sees harrowing action in Guadalcanal, before heading to Australia; John Basilone (Jon Seda), whose jaw-dropping heroism renders his compatriots speechless and leads to him being reluctantly transformed into a poster-boy for selling war bonds; and Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), at first rejected for service, who winds up seeing the war’s horrors up close in Peleliu and Okinawa.
As in “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Pacific” provides an almost unimaginably unflinching ground-level view of war from the ordinary grunt’s perspective. Because of this narrow lens, only a passing effort is made to locate humanity in the Japanese beyond rudimentary flourishes, such as a picture of a slain soldier’s family. In their determination to fight to the last man, the Japanese are described as “either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.” but any curiosity about the distinction essentially ends there.
What the production most sorely lacks, though, is a strong sense of cohesion, which often makes the hours play more like loosely assembled snapshots of the war without a compelling hook to pull the audience along. Nor do any of the key performers really distinguish themselves, dwarfed as they are by the general sense of pageantry — the sound and fury — that usually surrounds them. Perhaps that’s why the miniseries’ final two hours are its strongest — providing a heartbreaking glimpse of civilian casualties in the extended campaign for Okinawa, and dealing with inevitable difficulties returning home for young men who witnessed (and in some instances committed) horrible acts amid their quest to survive.
A brief disclaimer here, about the ideal way to view a production like this, which HBO will schedule over successive Sundays. That pattern might be vastly preferable to absorbing the 10 hours in a concentrated burst, as I did, which made the unrelenting earnestness of it all feel stately but also somewhat ponderous.
For veteran viewers of World War II fare, there’s also a risk of sounding jaded in analyzing such a massive undertaking, but in a sense, Hanks and Spielberg have themselves to blame. Having helped set the bar so high in prodding a modern audience to look at and appreciate what “the greatest generation” endured and accomplished, they’ve already touched most of the bases “The Pacific” reaches — and, alas, done it better.