HBO’s WWII series THE PACIFIC – Part One

Tonight HBO’s new World War II series THE PACIFIC debuted with Guadalcanal/Leckie, Part One of the ten episode drama by the producers of BAND OF BROTHERS and executive producers Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman.

Following the individual real-life experiences of three U.S. Marines, Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), John Basilone (John Seda) and Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello), these men and their fellow soliders across the Pacific theater of war against Japan.

Part One opens with the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor and American’s entry into World War II, and following the U.S. Navy battle at Midway, the next strategic battle to stop the Japanese building an airstrip on Guadalcanal.  Should Japan succeed in building an airbase in the Solomon Islands, they would cut off U.S. shipping lanes to Australia to isolate the nation and expand their sphere of influence in the South Pacific.

In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Marine Sgt.  Basilone prepares to ship out and confront the enemy somewhere in the Pacific, while budding journalist Leckie enlists in the Marine Corps.  Sledge, unable to enlist because of a heart murmur, says farewell to his best friend, Sidney Phillips (Ashton Holmes), who is about to leave for boot camp. Exactly eight months after Pearl Harbor, the 1st Marine Division, including Leckie and Phillips, lands on Guadalcanal in order to secure its strategically vital airfield and prepare for the inevitable counterattack.

This first episode establishes the family hardships of seeing volunteers like Basilone leave their families, but after December 7th the call to duty and sacrifice for both soldiers and their loved ones rang clearly.  While a new reproduction of the Pearl Harbor attack beyond the archival footage presented in the opening prologue (narrated by Hanks) would have been cost prohibitive for the series, the recap of America’s first seven months of involvement in the war also lacks some emotional punch in the series opener.  The angst is personalized more deeply by Sledge who suffers seeing his friends go off to serve while a heart murmur keeps him at home.

Still Part One gets right into battle as the Leckie and the 1st Marines land at Guadalcanal, though many viewers may be surprised by what they experience upon arrival — one of the many historical facts about war in the Pacific which may surprise audiences, especially if they know the history of the European theater better.  The Marines incursion on the island, taking of the airfield and subsequent isolation on Guadalcanal yields a gritty, gripping first battle for the show. This is a very different style and method of armed conflict than shown and experienced in BAND OF BROTHERS, with guerilla warfare in the islands’ dense jungles a dark, spooky contrast to the open field fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy, France.

Focusing THE PACIFIC on the service of three main protagonists and splitting them up as the series progresses in time might be a risky move in dramatic terms.  The opening episode of BAND OF BROTHERS, Currahee,  gave audiences a chance to bond with the men of Easy Company as they trained for D-Day.  We not only got to know these characters apart from the confusion and action of battle, but their struggles gained viewers’ empathy and indentification.   Such identification is less palpable in Part One of THE PACIFIC if only because the story’s attention is divided among three man in three different locations, with Sledge still remaining in the States at this point.  Expect their stories to coalesce and intertwine as the series moves ahead, but such divisions of drama maintains some emotional distance upon beginning THE PACIFIC.

Dale’s portrayal of Leckie is strong and engaging, and Mazzello’s disappointing dilemma being prevented from serving by his father (a doctor) offers a patriotic pull into the American mindset in 1942.  By the way, if Joseph Mazzello looks familiar to you, you’re probably remembering him as the young boy Tim set loose in Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK from 1993.  He’s grown up, obviously, but his face remains easily recognizable.   Such a connection for audiences might provide an additional layer of emotional impact for viewers, literally knowing the actor as a boy and now watching him fight a war as a grown man.

FilmEdge looks forward to viewing the rest of THE PACIFIC as it unfolds each Sunday night for the next nine weeks, as we remain huge fans of its predecessor on HBO.  Visit the official website for the series to view making-of videos and perhaps share your family’s stories of a veteran who served in this terrible yet triumphant campaign in World War II.

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