Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have long since shown that they can spin a good World War II yarn. But while their previous collaborations (Saving Private Ryan
, which they starred in and directed, respectively, and Band of Brothers
, for which they were part of the producing team) were set in Europe, The Pacific
is their first look at the conflict with the Japanese on the other side of the world--and the two executive producers, along with an outstanding cast, an able crew, and a slew of top-notch writers and directors, have done a superb job. In making a 10-episode HBO miniseries (on five discs, with a sixth containing bonus material) that combines real events and participants with other dramatic elements newly created for the project, the filmmakers took a personal, experiential approach, focusing in particular on three marines, all of them real individuals: Robert Leckie (played by James Badge Dale), an aspiring writer who sees his first action at Guadalcanal, falls in love while on leave in Australia, and later suffers serious war wounds; John Balisone (Jon Seda), who performs heroically at Guadalcanal, earns a Medal of Honor, and is then sent home to help sell war bonds, only to return to action at Iwo Jima; and Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello), who enlists later than the others, but not too late to witness and take part in some unimaginable horrors (books written by Sledge and Leckie about their experiences were used as source material for the miniseries). Of course, no one who's never been in combat can understand what it's really like, but through these three, and other men as well, we get some idea of the debilitating effects of war, both physical and psychological, and how those who managed to survive it might cope. As Leckie would write, "There are things men can do to one another that are sobering to the soul. It is one thing to reconcile these things with God, but another to square them with yourself."
A number of episodes depict the characters at home, on leave, or otherwise away from the field of battle, but the greatest impact comes from the extraordinarily powerful fighting scenes in which the marines--exhausted, half-starving, riddled with malaria, and enduring the appalling conditions (from extreme heat to relentless, torrential downpours) of an impenetrable, unforgiving jungle--battle an implacable, fanatical foe who would much rather die than surrender or be taken prisoner. A sequence in Part Five, when we're with Sledge as he lands at Peleliu for his first real action, is especially gripping; battles at night and in the rain at Cape Gloucester in Part Four, on Iwo Jima in Part Eight, and on Okinawa in Part Nine are also wrenching, but really, all the fighting sequences manage to convey the sheer, visceral terror the men experienced. To the filmmakers' credit, a number of real WWII veterans are on hand to share their memories, both in a 49-minute featurette on disc 6 and during the short introductions to each episode narrated by Hanks. Other extras include a 22-minute "making of" piece and a brief but interesting description of the cultural differences that made the conflict between the Japanese and the Americans even more brutal than it might have been. Kudos also go to the packaging and design of the boxed set; the menus are easily navigable, offering a synopsis of each episode. --Sam Graham