Way back in March 2010 I wrote a five-star, 1000-word, gushingingly sycophantic review of the first two episodes of The Pacific, the latest mega-budget World War II-set mini-series from premium cable quality-telly merchants HBO. Being an unabashed diehard fan of the series’ earlier companion piece, Band of Brothers, my anticipation was extremely high, so when the offer came to attend the UK premiere of the first two episodes, I jumped frenziedly at the chance.
Now, well over a year later, I’m finally catching up on the rest of the series, and with hindsight, I may have been a little bit premature to describe it as a “classic in the making”. (In my defence, the premiere was very exciting, and I was still new to the glitz and glamour of journalistic perks. It was at the O2! It was on a massive screen! The vice-president of Sky Movies HD did a little talk! I got a free goody bag! PR companies: if you provide any or all of the above, you are guaranteed an effusive, integrity-be-damned, five-star review from this writer.) I’m up to episode six, out of a total of ten, and it’s yet to grab me in the way it’s sister managed so well.
My main qualm is that I haven’t connected with the characters yet. Like most war stories, the focus is on a few heroic privates. One of the great strengths of Band of Brothers was an immediate array of recognisable, likeable, distinct protagonists (all, like The Pacific, based on real soldiers). The gun-ho-ness of Sgt Bill Guarnere contrasted wonderfully with the softly-spoken heroics of Damien Lewis’ Major Richard Winters, or the slow descent into alcoholism of Cpt Lewis Nixon. This close relationship between character and viewer is all but lost in The Pacific.
Part of the problem, I think, is that the source is more scattershot. Brothers was entirely based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Steven E Ambrose (which I am not in the least bit ashamed to say I have read twice), focussing on the exploits of one company in the Paratroopers, from training to VE-Day, via Normandy, the Bulge and Hitler’s Austrian hideaway. The Pacific, meanwhile, takes its source from the diaries and memoirs of three separate Marines, whose paths occasionally cross as they battle in Australasia. We don’t focus on one hero, but three, and never spend enough time with any to befriend them properly as an audience. Only Leckie, the erudite writer played with skill by James Badge Dale, comes close, and even then he is too schizophrenic, flitting between personalities and character traits.
The three-strand narrative makes things a little convoluted, and all too often, incoherent. War is messy, violent, disorganised, and choatic, and it takes storytellers of real skill to fashion a well-constructed narrative out of it. The makers of The Pacific flirt with genius – the gobsmackingly visceral battle scenes remain absolutely unrivalled, in television or cinema – but they fail to tell a story with a clearly defined vision of what they’re trying to say (beyond the regulation ‘war is hell’ boilerplate), or who they’re trying to communicate it through. I’ll hold out final opinion until I’ve seen the whole series, but unfortunately I can’t see The Pacific holding the same sacred place it occupies on my DVD shelf, rolled out every six months for a weekend marathon.