This review contains spoilers
The Pacific, one of the most talked about TV series of 2010 has drawn a lot of comparisons with previous miniseries Band of Brothers, whilst it retains Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg as executive producers together with some of the crew, and is once again set in World War Two, it is tonally and technically a very different series.
Based in part on the memoirs of Two US Marines: ‘With The Old Breed at Peleiu and Okinawa’ by Eugene Sledge and ‘A Helmet For My Pillow’ by Robert Leckie, The series follows three main characters: Sledge (Joseph Mazello), Leckie (James Badge Dale) and John Basilone (Jon Seda), all US marines fighting in the bloody ‘Island Hopping Campaign’ of World War 2’s Pacific Theatre. Spanning a period of over 4 years, from the attack on Pearl Harbour to the Marines uneasy return home after the war, it is an ambitious but flawed attempt at illuminating an often forgotten chapter of US Military History, which won’t be to all tastes.
Each of the 10 episodes runs roughly 45 minutes to an Hour in length (probably to account for advertising breaks), whilst it makes for easy, accessible viewing, it isn’t really adequate for the four year time span the series covers, nor does it seem to justify a reported budget of over $200 million (it was the most expensive TV Series in history), quite simply you’d expect more for the money. Without a uniform length many of the storylines aren’t given the time they need to flourish, whilst other less interesting episodes are given too much emphasis. One of the strengths of ‘Band of Brothers’ was the fact that there was no uniform length, episodes lasted as long as they needed to, the same can’t be said of The Pacific, its uneven pacing is a major flaw, and it is far from being the only one.
Erratic pacing is evident throughout the series, in the first episode particularly. It starts off with introductions to the characters home lives (it is here Spielberg’s influence is first seen, these scenes are very reminiscent of his early films), before jumping forward 9 months to the Marines’ landing on Guadalcanal, all within the space of 30 minutes, the episode ending with the first of several savage battles in the series.
Whilst some viewers may be glad to see the ‘action’ arrive so quickly, many others will be put off by this decision. There is no indication of the characters training or movements during those nine months, and no real ‘tension’ leading up to the battle, and as such it’s very hard to care when the first soldiers are killed, soldiers who we, the audience barely know. This opening episode sketches a brief, clichéd outline of the main characters home lives and personalities, it is largely the only information given about these areas for the first few episodes, and makes it hard to connect with the characters motivations. Perhaps realising this the screenwriters introduce more ‘home front’ scenes in the latter half of the series, but due to clichéd writing and the increased intensity of the fighting they only end up feeling intrusive, seemingly belonging in a different series.
Despite the relatively fast moving opening, some episodes are surprisingly slow, repetitive battle scenes, slow burning storylines, and in one episode at least a complete lack of ‘action’ all make an appearance. It may prove a disappointment to those viewers poached by the action heavy trailers and hype, other episodes pass relatively quickly. The uneven pace of the series is a major flaw that could have been fixed with a tighter edit, and brings other problems into light.
Having several lead characters, sometimes in the same episode made for disjointed and annoying viewing. No sooner have the audience bonded with one character, the series switches to another, characters are the emphasis for one episode then get a few lines in the next. It’s confusing and disrupts the flow of the series. Each of the leads brings with them their own group of supporting characters, whilst it brings more diversity to the series it adds to the confusion remembering who’s who, and it reduces the screen time of more important characters.
The different characters serve at different points and places in the war. Sledge and Leckie and connected through supporting character Sidney Phillips (a friend and squad mate respectably), but they meet only once in the series and little is made of it, Basilone having a completely separate story. It’s an ambitious move on the Producers part, putting so much into the story, but unfortunately it doesn’t completely work, the different storylines never quite gell, it often feels like there’s too much going on, and the large cast isn’t utilised as well as it could have been.
The script is a bit hit and miss, the three leads are given generally convincing dialogue, the military acronyms and period modes of conversation seem well researched, and there aren’t many plot holes. But there are issues, the home front scenes are very clichéd (as are some of the combat scenes), and seem out of place with the rest of the series, whilst many of the supporting characters struggle with limited screen time and clichéd, generic dialogue largely failing to give memorable performances.
The Pacific compresses over 4 years into roughly 10 hours of screen time, and omissions have to be made, but the limited involvement of Cape Gloucester, and the way the series glosses over the Marines occupation duties in China (mentioned in One sentence) may prove an annoyance to viewers familiar with the real events (or indeed viewers hoping for a longer series), whilst the rather abrupt conclusion does the series no favours. Most of these issues don’t have a serious effect on the series, but considering the several years the series spent in pre-production, and the six screenwriters employed, they are problems that could have been easily fixed.
It is funded by Americans, and is telling an American Story, so arguably bias is expected, but the lack of insight into the Japanese perception of the conflict comes as a disappointment, as with many other Hollywood productions on the conflict they are given little to do but scream and run blindly into American fire.
Whilst it certainly has its flaws, there is also a lot to recommend this series.
One of the highlights of the series occurs in the first minutes. A haunting, beautifully made title sequence opens each episode, interweaving short extracts from the series with impressive graphic effects and a powerful sore from Hans Zimmer; it never outstays its welcome, suing the series perfectly.
The Pacific was a far more brutal campaign than Europe, fewer casualties were suffered overall but that’s only because fewer troops were involved (just look at the predicted losses for Operation Downfall the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands, for proof). The Pacific doesn’t shy away from this; the action scenes in the series are extremely gory, full of viscera, gore, and containing extensive violent deaths. Action or war fans will probably appreciate these scenes, which are very impressively put together, historians will appreciate the accuracy, and adult audiences in general will appreciate the serious subject matter.
American and Japanese soldiers alike engage in mutilation and ‘trophy taking’ as they battle their way across the increasingly hellish battlefields featured in the series. Some viewers may find it hard to sympathise with characters who engage in such activities, but that is exactly the point, the Pacific theatre was a conflict that pushed the Allies and Japanese alike to the very edge, even today the names ‘Okinawa’ and ‘Iwo Jima’ still resonate strongly with serving US Marines.
Several scenes linger in the memory: a Marine pulling the teeth from a live Japanese soldier, Sledge’s Friend Snafu dropping stones into the blown apart skull of a dead Japanese, scattering blood and rank water, and Sledge’s tumble into a muddy shell hole filled with maggot’s, it makes for gut wrenching, but strangely compelling viewing, and certainly proves a change from other, more far-fetched US imports. The extensive violence and sometimes shocking content may prove an annoyance or off putting for some viewers, in any case The Pacific isn’t really appropriate for anyone under the age of 15, or sensitive to violence.
Visually it is very impressive, the cinematography is very convincing, and in many instances impressive, every episode is well directed, the series fits together very well (somewhat surprising considering there were 6 directors), with very few continuity errors. Though Steven Spielberg as executive producer largely takes a backseat, it is clear that the crew were taking notes from his back catalogue, the landing on Pelieu is very reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan’s opening, whilst the dramatic camerawork could be from anyone of his films, his involvement (indirect or otherwise) certainly works in the series favour.
CGI is used sparingly (albeit largely convincingly); instead the series relies on practical effects to portray the explosions and action in the series, it is here that the $200 million budget is best illustrated; the action sequences are stunning, cinematic in their quality and scale. The assault on Peleiu airfield stands out in particular, a dramatic, action packed 10 minutes, that more than equals many recent theatrical releases in the genre, and gets some very convincing performances out of its participants. The series was shot over a period of several months in locations across Australia, which largely proves a convincing double, as well as demonstrating Australia’s impressive scenery.
Despite the clichéd screenplay, and confusing narrative of the series, the performances are overall, impressive. All three leads give solid performances believable as the real ages they were portraying (most of the marines were under 25, a significant amount mere teenagers) but the most impressive performances come from Gary Sweet (Gunnery Sergeant Elmo ‘Gunny’ Haney) and Rami Malek (Corporal Merriell ‘Snafu’ Shelton), both create bizarre, memorable characters, and make the most of their somewhat limited screen time.
The pacing and scripting is erratic, whilst clichéd dialogue and extremely variable performances make an unwelcome presence. It certainly has its flaws and yes, it isn’t as good as Band of Brothers, but overall the pros outnumber the cons, in short The Pacific is an fairly impressive, very enjoyable mini-series, and a worthy addition to Spielberg’s list of credits.