Friday, March 12, 2010

HBO's Pacific Review in WSJ - Poetic Prose

I read this review of HBO's mini-series The Pacific and was treated to poetry in prose. Nancy Dewolf Smith's close reading of this TV event is splendid writing. Here it is in its etirety. The subject of the War in the Pacific is epic.

HBO's 10-part miniseries "The Pacific" encapsulates the American war against Japan in a series of four battles, as experienced by U.S. Marines, that took place between August 1942 and the middle of June 1945: the famous ones for Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the more obscure but also brutal fight to drive the Japanese off Peleliu island. Even those who know already that the Pacific theater was like no other in the war may be shocked by the harrowing combat re-created here.

Stunning in a different way are the three Marines at the center of the series. In their true stories and, more importantly, their individual responses to the demands of warfare, we find a perfect trinity of action, emotion and intellect. Understated as it is here—we must see for ourselves what these men are, and only with effort, in the most fleeting moments—the nuanced humanity they bring to the screen is crucial. Other characters also leave indelible impressions. Yet without these central three, the series might be little more than a balletic action film with psyche-piercing sights and sound effects.

Sgt. John Basilone (Jon Seda), the machine gunner who won the Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal, is the doer, the man without whom no war would be winnable. Although Basilone was a household name in America during the war, we do not often read his mind in "The Pacific," or need to. Yanked out of action after Guadalcanal to go on a lengthy war-bond promotion tour at home, he buries his frustration in a grim pursuit of female flesh. And yet when true romance arrives—only months before he voluntarily returns to action in the Pacific—the ultimate Marine is the most vulnerable of men.

Mr. Seda, whose face invites us in even as it gives nothing away, deserves most of the credit for clarifying a simple mystery at the heart of braveness; how, stripped to his elemental self, a hero is a kind of innocent. Even so, the power of a scene where we see him without clothes—bursting with health even as he faces death, his skin tattooed and yet looking as unblemished as a baby's—owes much to those who so gracefully filmed it.
Pfc. Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello) entered the war later than some, partly because his physician father—who, like many fathers then, had fresh memories of the carnage of World War I—did not want his son to enlist. Sledge's transformation from a clean-living moralist to a battle-scarred realist who needs reminding that he even has a soul can be painful to watch. Precisely because he came to war with a tender, open heart, the price he pays in suffering is a wounded spirit that may never have healed. His story is a reminder that life is not the only thing war can extinguish. Some survive but never regain the capacity to feel unbounded, guiltless joy.

If there is a pair of eyes through which we see most clearly, they belong to Pfc. Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale). He comes to the Pacific already a classic outsider, and although he becomes a crack fighter with close bonds to his comrades, his letters home reveal cynicism and detachment. Some horrors, once seen and participated in, cannot be forgotten, he says. "It is one thing to reconcile these things with God, but another to square it with yourself."

But Leckie, watching and recording, is resilient. From the depths of a total mental breakdown, he latches on to signs of life—some of them no larger than the wisps of blond hair blowing in the breeze on a nurse's cheek. Thanks to Mr. Dale, we see more deeply into Leckie than any other character here, and his transformations from harsh-faced judge of mankind to happy lover and back again are both troubling and marvelous to see.

"The Pacific" spends no time on lectures. Two of the series' most fundamental truths are delivered in single lines. One comes when a taxi-driving vet who served in Europe tells Leckie that the men who fought in the Pacific had the hardest war. Another becomes clear at a sunny behind-the-lines military base where flowers grow and buxom nurses abound—and we are reminded that this picture, familiar even now, is a fake. For most, the Pacific was only blood, mud and lonely, unmitigated fear.

As for the meaning of it all, we have Capt. Andrew Haldane (Scott Gibson) and the words: "I want to believe, I have to believe...every man that's wounded, every man that I lose, that it's all worthwhile because our cause is just." And then there's Bob Leckie's more succinct profession of faith: "I believe in ammunition."

What would the old breed make of all this, if more were alive today? To see the mesmerizing Rami Malek as Louisiana bayou boy Pfc. Merriell Shelton, who first appears like a sinister genie at the gates of hell, but may be something else entirely. To see the faces of the Marines at a jungle showing of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," yelling raunchy comments at the young Ingrid Bergman until her femininity casts a soothing spell and they stare, transfixed, at the screen. To watch once more the splashing men wading into the sea to wash away the gore and filth of months of combat, their naked bodies gleaming as if, somehow, they have been purified...until the next battle makes them sinners again.

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