So I just finished watching Part 10 of HBO’s miniseries The Pacific. This is obviously a weird time to write about a TV show, when it’s over, but I can’t shake the last emotional echoes. So I’m going to work some of them out here. And if you’d like to experience the whole thing, HBO will be running the entire miniseries in two marathons next weekend (fittingly, Memorial Day). Parts 1-5 will be Sunday starting at 2, with Parts 6-10 on Monday. I’ll be drunk in the Bahamas, but if you have the intestinal fortitude to watch this whole miniseries in two giant blurts, good on you.
To recap: The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. And then some nice young men went and fought a horrific jungle war on a series of rocky little knobs and many of them died and many more were maimed and some came home. And then Mad Men happened, and now you understand why Don and Roger are alcoholic pathological liars.
Not really. I mean, some of that happened, yes. But there’s more. The miniseries, brought to you by the team behind Band of Brothers, begins with Pearl Harbor and follows two small groups of soldiers during the Pacific war.
Back in 2004, I was fact-checking a story on Tom Hanks at my old job, and the interviewer asked Hanks what big goal projects he had left, since he’d done Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, From the Earth to the Moon, and Apollo 13. Hanks replied (with my thanks to Fred Schruers for unwittingly letting me mine his old transcripts):
I think there’s four big massive stories, subject matters from the 48 years that I’ve been alive that hold infinite fascination for me. One of them was the space program, human beings going to the moon. There’s World War II and Vietnam, which we’ve touched on. And the fourth one is Communism, not, the two dimensional portrayals that it has been, you know, that it was throughout all the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. You know, they were real people living on the other side of the Berlin Wall and you know what, all they wanted to do was to have mayonnaise. It’s a fascinating, absolutely, I can’t get enough of reading about the details of what life was like back then, and also what people thought of it, and actually the insanity of the Kafka esque aspect of how they—of how they were.
So I guess we’ll see the miniseries about life in East Berlin in a couple of years. Later they talked about The Pacific, which had been in the works for a year or two at the time.
When I was in high school in Oakland, a local channel ran—Oakland ran the Thames Television The World At War narrated by Laurence Olivier. I can hear the theme now. [SINGING THEME]. And this was a, you know, a mind-altering experience, every hour was mesmerizing. Every hour broke my heart, at the same time filled me up with knowledge that I never ever had before. That solidified it, because I grew up around Alameda, it’s essentially a Navy town and my dad had been in the Navy and all my friends had fathers that were on the Ranger and the Coral Sea and the Enterprise…but all of the adults in our lives talked about the war as though they survived the black plague. When The World at War came along, it really explained to me what this burden was that all these people had.
That really encapsulates what Hanks & Co. set out to accomplish with the miniseries, I think, for a generation that never saw The World at War. Over ten episodes, The Pacific followed several characters with varying levels of involvement in each of their lives. It’s based on books written by two men, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge, whose experiences along with those of another man, John Basilone, give the series its shape, and centers on the battles on Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. They shot for nearly a year in Australia and the miniseries cost an estimated $200 million, which I think is pretty damn good for ten hours. James Cameron spent that much on Na’vi tails, jeez.
The end result, for me, was something less than entertaining. It’s engrossing, of course. Sledge’s and Leckie’s books were combined and streamlined into a pretty standard war narrative; you start out meeting a number of handsome, funny young men, some of whom you recognize if you watch much, much too much TV like I do, sailing off into a situation they have no concept of. And then you watch them get put into a meat grinder and it is horrific. I guess I sound fatally naive when I say that—it’s a war miniseries, for crying out loud, and about some of the bloodiest combat the United States was ever involved in. And I’ve seen war movies before. But this—I don’t know what best explains the exceptional hellishness of what’s on-screen in this miniseries, and how real and immediate and grotesque it feels. It might be my pretty big TV. Or the great leaps forward that make-believe war has taken since Saving Private Ryan.
Maybe it’s something else. So much of this miniseries, even when the viewer doesn’t feel surrounded by artillery exploding and squibs bursting and fake limbs flying off, takes place in sheer disgusting physical misery. One character says in Part 10, and I paraphrase, the guys in the Pacific didn’t get leaves in Paris and London. As bombed-out and depleted as those cities were, they were still cities, with beds and food and ladies. The Pacific warriors (specifically the Marines that we’re following) spent their whole war sitting in the mud eating spoiled food, drinking fouled water when they even had water, being devoured by mosquitoes while their shoes rotted off their feet. There is a tactile grossness to huge swaths of this miniseries; somewhere around Part 2 I just wanted to take all those boys home with me and give them hot baths and soup and whiskey. There was a scene after the battle on Guadalcanal, when the marines have been fighting for, oh, a million years in the mud, and they get to a ship where they’re having a bit of rest, and they troop into the galley, all bloody and filthy and exhausted, and the cook says over his shoulder that the kitchen’s closed. One of the marines just says, All we want is some hot coffee. And the sailor turns and looks at them and you see the weight of that first gory, infinite battle hit him and he’s just like, yeah, I’ll get you some coffee. You can see he just wants to give them anything he can if it’ll make them look less like they’ve just crawled out of hell.
I keep trying to find a parallel to the wars that are going on right now, partly because I have a couple of friends and family members who’ve been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and partly because I saw a lot of Sebastian Junger last week on TV promoting his book about a particular unit in Afghanistan. I have to wonder what the miniseries and movies that will be made about these wars once they’re finally over will be like (as opposed to the ones that have been made so far, which have ranged from middling to sublime).
The Pacific doesn’t get into why the Marines on Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa are fighting, really. We don’t see the attack on Pearl Harbor (I think they’d owe Michael Bay royalties if they tried) and the Japanese forces don’t get a Letters From Iwo Jima that tells their side. You never know what the enemy is saying, and most of what you see of the Japanese soldiers is them either dying or killing. On Okinawa there are a few interactions with civilians, which I found similar to a lot of fiction about Vietnam, actually. But there is no empathy for the Japanese soldiers, although there is one scene of a Marine instructing his charges to fear and respect the enemy, because they are fighting fiercely for their own territory and have been doing so for decades. But there are no scenes of soldiers sitting around asking why they’re fighting, or anyone talking about fascism or China or shipping lanes. They’re fighting to keep themselves and the men next to them alive, and I think that might bear some similarity to the way the contemporary wars are being fought now by the people fighting them. Whatever the reasons were for those wars starting, and I think we can all come up with a list as long as my arm of bad reasons, lies, outright misinformation, and corrupt motives, the people who are still engaged in them right now are still fighting to keep themselves and the people next to them alive.
Which might be why I sat here sobbing for about ten minutes after Part 10 ended. The men came home and returned to their lives with varying levels of success. Following the final scene there was a sequence of the characters, first with images of the actors who played them, then with photos of the men at the time, and small accounts of their lives after the war. And that broke my heart again in a very specific way. There was one character we hadn’t seen since we was wounded on Peleliu, and we finally learned that he survived his wound, made it home, and went on to have a family and a life, as, of course, millions of soldiers, sailors, and marines did after the war.
It’s a stunning piece of filmmaking, The Pacific. It’s not a documentary, and it’s not a game-changer, and I think it’s slid in a little under the radar as Treme‘s lead-in. That’s a national wound that’s much more raw for a lot of Americans. But it’s worth watching, although maybe not in two brutal five-hour blocks. I hope when it ends you all don’t feel like you’ve been hollowed out, like I did. But let me know what you thought.