Hell in the Pacific: Spielberg's new epic war drama

Spielberg's new epic war drama series shows the truth about an often neglected story
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The Independent Culture

The mountain may not come to Mohamed, but it sure as anything comes to Steven Spielberg.

Wanting to re-create the flag-raising scene atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima for The Pacific, Spielberg and Tom Hanks's Japanese war version of Band of Brothers, $1m worth of volcanic ash was transported to the set in You Yangs Regional Park near Melbourne in Australia. With such scale and attention to detail do you begin to understand how $200m (about $8m per episode more than Band of Brothers) was spent on this 10-hour epic salute to "the greatest generation".

Based on the combat memoirs of Eugene Sledge, With the Old Breed, and Robert Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow, as well as the testimony of other veterans and input from historians, the HBO series follows the fortunes of three soldiers over the course of the bitter, blood-soaked campaign, starting with the invasion of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in August 1942 and ending on the Japanese island of Okinawa in the spring of 1945. (Unlike in Band of Brothers, there are also two episodes in which the soldiers return to the home front.) The relative unfamiliarity of this narrative will make The Pacific especially interesting to a British audience perhaps sated with the oft-repeated D-Day-to-Berlin story.

"When Band of Brothers came out many people who had fought in the Pacific said 'What about us guys... we made a major contribution too'," says Spielberg. Adds Hanks: "The European theatre had a different DNA to it than the war in the Pacific. The Pacific was white people fighting yellow people with an absolute hatred and distrust for everything the other side stood for. They thought we were lazy devils. We thought they were yellow dogs."

Now I don't know how much of that $200m budget was spent on explosives, smoke machines, flares and all the other accoutrements necessary in creating combat authenticity, but anyone who saw Band of Brothers, or, for that matter, its progenitor, Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, will know what to expect – another unflinching ground-level depiction of the sound and fury of warfare. However, having recently watched the first two episodes, which deal with the invasion of Guadalcanal, I found myself becoming, well, rather bored by the incessant gunfire and explosions – a far cry from the shock and awe I felt during the similarly noisy and unsparing opening half hour of Saving Private Ryan. Been there – done it, you might say.

"For veteran viewers of Second World War fare, there's a risk of sounding jaded in analysing such a massive undertaking," says Brian Lowry, chief TV critic of Variety in Los Angeles, who watched all 10 episodes of The Pacific in one sitting. "But in a sense, Hanks and Spielberg have themselves to blame. Having helped to set the bar so high in prodding a modern audience to look at and appreciate what 'the greatest generation' endured and accomplished, they've already touched most of the bases The Pacific reaches – and, alas, done it better."

That's not to say The Pacific isn't peppered with jaw-dropping effects and set-pieces – in the episodes I watched, for example, the assembled invasion fleet and the landing-craft-view of the beaches provoked the familiar admiration. However, now I find it's undercut by that nagging CGI-ennui, the sense that's been growing since the millennium that in a cinematic world where anything can be achieved with special effects, then nothing is particularly amazing.

Perhaps Hanks, Spielberg and fellow executive producer Gary Goetzman sensed this when they decided to focus on the stories of three individual combatants – the aforementioned memoirists, Robert Leckie (played here by James Badge Dale), Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), as well the astoundingly heroic John Basilone (Jon Seda), whose bravery leads him to be reluctantly transformed into a poster boy for selling war bonds.

"It's more personal and intimate than Band of Brothers," explains Goetzman. "We wanted it to be based on real people in real situations," adds Spielberg. "Because the marines were also fighting malaria and all kinds of the elements – the natural environment was equally debilitating."

That might have been their intention, but I'm not sure that they have been entirely successful. The soldiers' stories struggle to impose themselves against the relentless pyrotechnics. "The key performers (don't) really distinguish themselves, dwarfed as they are by the general sense of pageantry that surrounds them," says Variety's Brian Lowry. "Perhaps that's why the final two hours are the strongest ... dealing with inevitable difficulties returning home for young men who witnessed – and in some cases committed – horrible acts. "What the production most sorely lacks, though, is a strong sense of cohesion, which often makes the hours play more like loosely assembled snapshots of the war, without a compelling hook to pull the audience along."

And there is a deeper problem with The Pacific. Everybody, from the producers, directors and actors to the set designers and military advisers and trainers (the actors all attended a tough boot camp), talks about their "moral responsibility" in getting it right. And the online HBO documentary about the making of The Pacific features medal-bedecked veterans visiting the set, accompanied by Tom Hanks. The resulting mini-series has a reverence that is certainly due to these old soldiers, but such earnestness doesn't make it an entirely satisfying viewing experience. Compare it, for example, to Clint Eastwood's excellent 2006 diptych Flags of our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima, whose greater artistic and cultural complexity admittedly spelt poor box office.

Really great war films have a strong sensibility – be it the startling war-weary cynicism of Robert Aldrich's Attack, the druggy existentialism of Apocalypse Now, the bracing nihilism of Sam Fuller's The Big Red One or the unalloyed hatred of Elem Klimov's Go and Look, the sort of film that, on leaving the cinema, makes you want to go and duff up a German. The Japanese in The Pacific barely feature in close-up, by the way.

Prepare to be impressed by its spectacle and its painstaking authenticity, and awed by the bravery and self-sacrifice of the people depicted here, but whether or not you'll be moved, or even interested, by the this 10-hour epic is a wholly different question.

The Pacific begins on 5 April on Sky Movies Premiere HD