Like “Band of Brothers” nine years ago, HBO’s World War II miniseries “The Pacific” is a massive achievement. And like its Europe-set predecessor, it’s at its best when it focuses on the small things as a way of reflecting the huge story it’s telling.
The 10-part miniseries, which premieres at 9 p.m. ET Sunday (March 14), follows U.S. Marines as they advance across the Pacific theater of World War II, beginning with the landing on Guadalcanal in 1942 and continuing until the war’s end in 1945. It’s told principally through the eyes of three enlisted men: John Basilone (Jon Seda), Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), whose paths crossed during the campaign. The series is based in part on memoirs by Leckie (“Helmet for My Pillow”) and Sledge (“With the Old Breed”).
On the large scale, “The Pacific” does a frighteningly good job at depicting the brutal conditions not just in battle, but also in day-to-day life in locations like Guadalcanal, New Britain, Peleliu and Okinawa. Intense heat, unrelenting rain, inadequate ammunition and supplies and the fatigue and illness that come with it — to say nothing of a dug-in, relentless enemy — wore these soldiers down to the point that they became shadows of their former selves.
It’s in depicting those things that writers Bruce McKenna, Michelle Ashford, Robert Schenkkan, George Pelecanos, Graham Yost and Laurence Andries, along with Dale, Mazzello, Seda and the rest of the cast really shine. Mazzello in particular undergoes an amazing transformation as Sledge turns from an eager enlistee to a hardened soldier. It’s an incredible sustained performance, and a somewhat chilling one too.
Dale and Seda are equally good. Basilone, a Medal of Honor winner who’s shipped back the United States to help the war effort at home, comes to feel as though he’s neglected his fellow soldiers and looks for a way to return to the front; as Seda plays it, it’s a fairly stoic performance, but the regret he feels in leaving his comrades behind plays out in his eyes.
Dale’s Leckie, meanwhile, fights to maintain a link to his former life through frequent letters to a woman. He also suffers physical and emotional wounds; an episode midway through the miniseries finds Leckie recovering from illness at a hospital, where he spars with a psychologist (played by Matt Craven) about whether he’s sane enough to return to his unit. There are echoes of “Catch-22” in their conversations, and it’s a fascinating look at the mental toll the war took on its combatants.
What’s all the more impressive about “The Pacific” is that because it’s staying true to the stories of its central characters, it can’t focus on the same group of soldiers all the time, the way “Band of Brothers” did with Easy Company. Leckie and Sledge did in fact serve together in the 1st Marine Division, along with Sledge’s childhood friend Sid Phillips (played by Ashton Holmes), but they were in different regiments and didn’t fight side-by-side. Basilone was in a different regiment as well and spent a good portion of the war stateside before returning to battle in early 1945.
Despite that, though, the miniseries doesn’t meander. Though there are more than a few breaks from the fighting — episode three deals primarily with a post-Guadalcanal respite in Australia — “The Pacific” never feels like anything less than a cohesive whole. It’s really a remarkable piece of television. I know what I’m doing for the next 10 Sunday nights.
Photo credit: HBO