HBO’s The Pacific: Review

Image courtesy of HBO Canada

So following the D-Day commemorations, the excellent Stephen Saideman got to wondering why the Pacific theatre of World War Two, and by association, the HBO miniseries The Pacific, are far less acknowledged than the European theatre and Band of Brothers. This prompted me to finally get around to watching The Pacific – I watched the first episode last year with Daniel, but as is inevitable when you commit to watching something with a specific person, we never found the time to watch the rest.

I finished it in about a week, and kept notes all the way through. I’ve collected those episode-by-episode notes in a Tumblr post here, unvarnished and incoherent, here, if you want. This can also serve as my job application for the AV Club.

For a more coherent take, read on.

Something about The Pacific just didn’t click all the way with me. I’d frequently find myself scrolling through Twitter to while away some of the duller stretches, which I rarely do. Episode to episode, the problem would change. Sometimes I thought it was the actors – Band of Brothers’ Damian Lewis anchored the previous series far better than any of the three leads did, though the long stretch of episodes focusing on the utterly blank Eugene Sledge did make me appreciate Leckie’s return all the more. Structurally, the series was odd – intentionally, I think, but that doesn’t make it any easier to connect. The jumps back to America or Australia were pleasant and generally nice episodes, but they came so early in the series that neither of them had the impact of the Paris scenes in Band of Brothers.

At other times, I think it might just be the subject matter itself. While I can’t speak for the Americans – though Saideman’s post does suggest this is the case there too – I don’t really know much about the Pacific theatre. Like, Midway, island-hopping, flamethrowers, banzai, the broad strokes of the war are all in my head somewhere. But it doesn’t feel particularly familiar to me. Todd VanDerWerff suggests:

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.)

I think I’ve actually played more WW2 games set in the Pacific theatre than in Europe (though that might be a consequence of having grown up in the Modern Warfare era), soVanDerWerff’s point about cultural depictions doesn’t necessarily hold for me, but there’s not a doubt that the overall narrative, the visuals and all the other clichés about the European campaigns are far more imprinted in my consciousness. So there’s certainly something to the idea that I felt a greater disconnect from the series’ characters because the series couldn’t rely on the shorthand of “this is D-Day – you know this and you know why you care”.

Image nicked off

All of that said, there is a lot to commend about it. The battle scenes are utterly harrowing, and (mostly) well directed and produced things. In light of Game of Thrones’ ‘The Watchers on the Wall’, I found myself paying more attention than usual to the choreography and stuff, and I was mostly (as a complete ignoramus in these matters) impressed. I got the impression it’d all be jungle warfare but it quickly became a series of horrifying battles across the plains of Mordor. Incredible production values too.

Writing this on Father’s Day, so worth noting: the father-son relationships in the series are strong as hell – Basilone’s Dad doesn’t speak a word of English throughout but is utterly wonderful all the same.

Some of the “why we’re fighting” speeches are a bit on the nose – I can sort of buy soldiers having these conversations I guess, but sometimes they’re just a bit much The speech the wonderful Captain fella gives after they cross the airfield was a particularly bad offender in this regard.

As ever, I think my favourite parts of these HBO war series are the interviews with the veterans at the start – I was gutted when some of the later downloads came without the pre-credits sequence. They remain utterly incredible – there’s something overwhelming at seeing these men speak, both when they are sanguine and almost matter-of-fact about the horrors we are about to witness, and when they are clearly struggling with emotions. So precious – almost tempted to seek out the DVDs just to see if there are more interviews.

Speaking of the credits, too long. Having been burned by Band of Brothers, I don’t think I watched them all the way through once, but consistently noticed how far I had to skip ahead to miss the credits. Didn’t think I could hate credits more than I did Band of Brothers’ but there you go.

All in all, I think I’d still recommend watching The Pacific, if only out of historical interest. But watch Band of Brothers first. Also, well worth reading VanDerWerff and Sepinwall’s recaps as you do so – they’ll force you to a more charitable interpretation.

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