You really can’t quibble with The Pacific‘s pedigree: The epic 10-part miniseries, which will air on consecutive Sunday evenings on HBO beginning March 15, comes from Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman, the same producing team that did the similarly themed 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers (Mr. Hanks and Mr. Goetzman also teamed up for 2008’s acclaimed John Adams). This thing is big event television, and if you somehow haven’t picked up on that fact from the bombardment of marketing from the good people at HBO, the string-laden Han Zimmer score that continually asserts itself will happily remind you.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it delivers. Based on intertwining true stories of Marines fighting in World War II, The Pacific, in its scope, sight and sound, is at all times breathtakingly impressive. It opens in December of 1941, sometime after Pearl Harbor, with a group of young troops preparing to ship out. “Hitler is not going to be our job,” says a gruff lieutenant colonel. “Not till they can’t whip him without us. The Pacific will be our theater of war.” Indeed. Before you know it, we’ve jumped ahead eight months, and the 1st Marine Division has landed on Guadalcanal for what turns into some truly harrowing and historic combat that gets a lot worse before it gets better.
The biggest problem I encountered with the first two installments (each about an hour long) was trying to distinguish which of our heroes are which-come on, in those pith helmets, and in the long grass, rain, mud and amid multi-explosions, it’s hard! Also tough: In evening battle, things get incredibly dark-and I don’t mean atmospherically, though it is that, too. But you may find yourself straining to see what exactly is happening in the midst of rat-a-tat-tat shootouts and chaotic foxholes (which may be precisely what these filmmakers had in mind).
But by the third episode, which takes place in Melbourne (where, hooray!-ladies start to show up), things have settled and we get a better sense of the principals. The Pacific is based, in part, on the books Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie and With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge-both authors are main characters. Leckie (a fine James Badge Dale) in particular seems to be at the center of the collective band of brothers. However! Do not make the mistake I made in looking up the actors on IMDB, as you might inadvertently find out who doesn’t make it alive to episodes 6 through 10. The pleasure of The Pacific is that for all of its star power behind the scenes, the actors onscreen are mostly unknown (hi, Nate Corddry!), and it’s easy to get sucked into the grim realism and always-heartbreaking truth about what wins a war.