Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Late to the Party #11: HBO's War Trilogy

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around.

The miniseries is a slowly dying format.  They were first introduced to North American television around 1974 with the CBC's National Dream, and reached prominence with the format's first blockbuster hit in ABC's Roots.  For those first few years, the miniseries was primarily a way to adapt popular novels to the small screen, and they resulted in astronomical ratings success for the networks that aired them.  Through the 1990s, the format remained popular, especially during sweeps period, but around the 2000s they gradually started to wane as the television landscape changed.  Nowadays, you can still find a handful of them every year -- and some, like History Channel's Hatfields & McCoys, still produce high numbers -- but they've mostly been corralled to a very tiny number of networks.

One of those networks that still has the luxury of producing miniseries is HBO, whose latest foray into the form, Olive Kitteridge, premieres in a few days.  And when the words "HBO" and "miniseries" are mentioned in close proximity to one another, Band of Brothers is probably the first that comes to mind.  The Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg-produced series was a big deal at the time -- its budget of about $125 million made it the most expensive miniseries production at the time it was created -- and it was met with a popularity to match that hype.  In fact, its DVD box set is still one of the best selling of all time, having made approximately $250 million worth in sales.

True to its name, Band of Brothers is about brotherhood.  It tells the true story of Easy Company, a crew of paratroopers in World War II, following their journey from training in Curahee to victory in Europe.  Throughout its 10-episode run, we're constantly shown that the safety of the whole matters more than the safety of the individual.  These are men who will do anything to protect the guys they're fighting with, and no matter how dire any situation becomes, it's always slightly leavened by the fact that these people are in it together.  Though the cast is huge, and they initially seem like an amorphous mass of faces, the writers do a great job of giving each of them tiny flashes of characterization that are easy to identify with and latch on to.  (It certainly doesn't hurt that they're played by actors, such as Damien Lewis and Michael Fassbender, who would later go on to greater fame.)  These are high-stakes situations that Band of Brothers depicts, and seeing funny, likable characters thrown into them make them even more gripping.

There's an episodic quality to the series, passing from major military event to major military event with little interludes of downtime tucked between them.  It's in those action sequences where the Band of Brothers' blockbuster budget really starts to show.  There isn't much time wasted in getting to the fireworks factory either.  "Day of Days," the second episode of the series, depicts the events that occurred when Easy Company landed in Normandy, and it's a brutal, propulsive hour that features nonstop action.  All of it is excellently staged and edited too, as a flurry of bullets fly, dirt kicks up everywhere, and soldiers dash through trenches while dodging the carnage.  It hardly lets up from there either -- from the two big setpieces in "Carentan" to the botched operation in "Replacements," the first half of Band of Brothers is characterized by high-adrenaline, action movie running and gunning.

While the second half still contains some breathtaking action, it slows down and starts to really dig into single-character focus episodes.  Though every episode technically has one or two main characters, it's not until sixth episode, "Bastogne," that the format becomes sharper and more experimental.  The Battle of the Bulge is one of the most famous battles of World War II, so the choice to show it from the perspective of Easy Company medic Eugene "Doc" Roe was a risky, but ultimately successful one.  "Bastogne" gives an excellent insight into the difficulty of being a military medic.  Roe may not be a soldier, but he's right there running through the frontlines along with them, putting himself in harm's way to try and keep everyone alive.  But throughout the hour, the losses build (visually displayed by the pile of bodies that gets higher every time Roe returns to a nearby post), and it's clear how futile the effort to save everyone is.  It's an unrelentingly bleak job that gets a spotlight in this unrelentingly bleak episode.

"Bastogne" may be a grim affair, but most of Band of Brothers is rimmed with a golden glow, despite the body count.  That's where Spielberg's influence really shines through, in its depiction of World War II as the Great War we're always told that it is.  You can see it in the reverent introductory segments at the beginning of each episode, which feature interviews with the real life versions of the members of Easy Company who were still alive at the time.  Characters are given brief moments of unlikability, but the series ultimately underlines how heroic they were for fighting in the first place.  The war may have been perilous and terrifying, but it was also just and necessary.

If Band of Brothers was about why we fight, then 2010's The Pacific -- Hanks and Spielberg's spiritual successor to Band of Brothers, depicting the Pacific Theater of World War II -- is about why we shouldn't fight.  Fitting with the real history of the battles in the East, the depiction of war in The Pacific is far more brutal than in Band of Brothers.  At times, it feels more like a horror show than a war drama.  The malicious jungle, the endless rain, the torrents of blood, the piles of mutilated corpses, the small prospect of a victory -- every episode feels like 60 minutes of pure nightmare fuel.  It's so unrelenting and pummeling that it's hard to even believe that these events took place around the same time frame as the those portrayed in Brothers.

Narratively speaking, the series takes a different approach as well.  Where Band of Brothers told a story about a massive ensemble, The Pacific focuses on three main characters: Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), and John Basilone (Jon Seda).  The former may contain the more endearing characters, but the latter was able to tap into the psychology of its leads with far greater success.  Over the course of 10 episodes, the series digs into the poetic tortured soul of Leckie, the green timidity of Sledge, and the action hero valor of Basilone.  And they all have wholly satisfying arcs, particularly Sledge, who becomes the closest thing the miniseries has to a true protagonist, as he transforms from a fearful rookie to a hardened Marine who has seen too much.

The rhythm of the story is much wavier than the relatively straightforward Band of Brothers too.  Since Leckie, Sledge, and Basilone were all in different regiments in the 1st Marine Division, even entering the war at different times, they're rarely ever in the same location.  Episodes ebb and flow, shifting the proportion of time each character gets, or sometimes devoting an entire hour to just one character and his regiment.  While it may take time to get accustomed to The Pacific's bobbing cadence, it builds nicely, concluding with one of the most powerful episodes of television I've even seen.  It's a post-war denouement, showing how the weight of the previous nine episodes has affected these characters, and it's quietly moving in a way that television rarely is.

Different in intensity and trajectory though they may be, The Pacific still feels like it's of a piece with Band of Brothers.  It's got the same high production values (another record breaking budget of $250 million), the same talking head segments that lead in to each episode, the same sense of Spielbergian prestige.  The Pacific is like Band of Brothers' darker, more soulful brother.

On the other hand, 2008's Generation Kill feels like an entirely different entity than Brothers and The Pacific, partially because it's not a production from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.  This miniseries comes from David Simon, hot off the end of his towering masterpiece The Wire, and he brings his journalistic sense of hyper-realism to the story of the U.S. Marine Corps' 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the first phase of the Iraq War.  He even uses a Rolling Stone writer, Evan Wright (whose real-life counterpart wrote the book on which the miniseries is based), as his POV character.

Simon bring his worldview along as well.  If The Pacific questioned whether what the Marines were doing was worth it, Generation Kill is an interrogation looking to know if what these Marines had to do was even right.  Unlike World War II, the war in Iraq wasn't a just war, and David Simon uses that to his advantage, burying the series in the moral grayness he's so comfortable with exploring.  The enemy isn't just men in uniforms -- now there's the prospect of civilians pointing guns at the Marines as well.  Danger is at a higher level, which only widens the capacity for these men to do amoral or foolish things to score a "win."

With Generation Kill, David Simon took his pet themes about institutions and power structures and translated them to the Iraq War.  This is a world where there's a huge disparity between the people who make decisions and those who are ultimately effected by those decisions.  Leaders only care about numbers that will make them "look good," subordinates care about lives and making the smart move.  "Can you believe that retard is in charge of people?," one character says about his higher-up after a poor decision, and it's a major question that implicitly pops up throughout the miniseries.  Most of the people in a position of power in the 1st Battalion are hypocritical, clueless, and blind to the point where it seems impossible that they got anywhere in life.  But really, that could be extrapolated to be about the American government at-large at the time.  Simon's hatred of the Bush Administration is palpable in Generation Kill.  As a writer, he has a habit of becoming a little didactic, but here he smartly puts his opinions in the mouth of Ray (brilliantly played by James Ransone), the doofus to whom nobody lends much of an ear.  It's an effective, entertaining way for Simon to get his point across without being preachy.

Instead of the brave, affable heroes we meet in Band of Brothers and The Pacific, Generation Kill presents many of the Marines as a bunch of meathead jocks.  They joke about shooting dogs for no reason, spout racist invective, and have very few qualms about the idea of killing innocent Iraqi citizens.  In another context, these would not be good people.  With a big gun and an American flag stitched on their uniforms, they're the protectors of our nation.

But the series is also notable for the subtle things it has to say about warfare.  Where The Pacific throws the war in Europe in stark relief by showing the nightmare of the Pacific Theater, Generation Kill draws constant comparisons between the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Some of the characters even served in Afghanistan, and their time there never comes up without there also being a mention of how much smoother things ran there.  By comparison, the Iraq War is an absolute trainwreck.   When viewed in close proximity to the twin Hanks and Spielberg WWII series, it's easy to see how much war has changed over the decades.  The technology has advanced and the weapons have become so powerful that it's easy to kill an enemy without even knowing what they look like.  (It's ironic, then, that there aren't any deaths of any main or secondary characters in Generation Kill.  Lots of Iraqis sure do die though.)

With these three miniseries, HBO was able to make their own approximation of blockbuster action films, complete with expansive casts and expensive action sequences.  We've seen all of the themes they explore before, but Band of Brothers ("war is fought by heroes!"), The Pacific ("war is hell..."), and Generation Kill ("why are we even here?") had the liberty of being seven to 10 episodes, allowing them to stretch out and dig in to those themes.  You just can't get that on the big screen.

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