HBO’s The Pacific, Episode 1

Two years ago, HBO sucked me in for good with their John Adams miniseries and a $5 subscription fee per month for the first six months. The miniseries ended, and by the time my subscriber fee raised, I was hooked on a number of their shows that should probably remain nameless. (Also, I’m a shameless sucker for HBO On Demand.)

I don’t regret any of it. In particular, I don’t regret it right now because I’ve been looking forward to their new miniseries, The Pacific. Although I haven’t yet seen Band of Brothers – the previous Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg war collaboration for HBO – you can bet I won’t miss this new miniseries (and it may inspire me to finally watch my copy of Band of Brothers ).  Apparently, you can watch the pilot episode of The Pacific for free here. HBO’s trying to drum up support (and get more subscribers, of course). I’d highly recommend you check it out. I’ll be blogging about the show each week – sometimes a little late, when I have to catch it On Demand because of scheduled commitments.

The basic premise behind The Pacific is that it follows some US Marines serving in the Pacific theatre of World War II. Episode 1 opens with Hanks narrating the events of Pearl Harbor, interspersed with primary source footage and some snippets of interviews with vets. My understanding is that the core of the miniseries will focus on several specific Marines.

Visually, the show is incredible and hard core. On the one hand, the impressive battle visuals – land and sea – make you feel you’re in the midst of the war. On the other hand, the aftermath of battle visuals – the casualties of war – drive home the intenseness of what’s going on.

One episode in, the biggest problem is that of characters. One of the most difficult aspects of military movies is keeping characters straight when they’re all wearing the same uniforms and helmets and covered with mud, blood, and whatever else. When done correctly, you can make it clear to the audience who’s who and who’s important. Right now, for instance, I can tell you that Basilone’s the guy with the big nose, and he seems to have a reputation as a scholar. Then there are the Italian-American guys (who really didn’t participate in the battle in Episode 1 on Guadalcanal), and the southern guy who frankly seems a bit effeminate, but frankly, I’m more interested in his friend back home who still hasn’t been able to enlist (perhaps because he’s also the only actor I recognized).

Unfair or inaccurate characterizations? Perhaps, but I think it says something about the ability (or inability, rather) of the show to convey who’s who. In the chaos of battle, the most important thing is to tell apart the two sides. As a viewer, I also want to be able to understand who I should focus on and who’s important.

I am by no means someone who can call out the nitty-gritty accuracies or inaccuracies of uniforms or things like that. However, I understand that one of the men portrayed gets into a relationship with (and marries) a Woman Marine. As someone studying women in the military, you can guarantee I’ll be playing close attention to that, and the portrayal of women in wartime more broadly.

I also expect that each episode is likely to start with oral history snippets. As a historian and oral historian, I appreciate this. However, does it detract or add to the miniseries? Who are these men? Are they the men being portrayed in the show itself?

On the one hand, it seems that these snippets offer poignant reminders that what you’re about to watch was real. On the other hand, I feel like it interrupts the narrative flow in a way that primary source film footage such as newsreels does not. Why not end an episode with oral histories? Wouldn’t that offer a meaningful wrap-up to what’s just been viewed?

I look forward to the nine remaining episodes. I think this is an important aspect of the war to portray, and if it increases our collective knowledge of the war in the Pacific Theatre, I’m all for it. More commentary coming soon – I imagine that as the story develops, I’ll have far more substantial things to say.

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