Last Night's Television - The Pacific, Sky Movies Premiere

That sinking feeling
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The Independent Culture

Lew Grade used to quip of his disastrous 1980 film, Raise the Titanic, which cost a fortune to make and bombed at the box office, that it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic. The Pacific cost $230m, making it the most expensive TV production in history, and on the basis of last night's first two episodes, it's another titanic waste of money. It would have been cheaper to... Well, put it this way: it would have been cheaper not to.

It's not that The Pacific is no good. On the contrary, it has battles scenes to make you hide behind the sofa. But as an exercise in storytelling it is severely flawed, which, given that one of the executive producers is Steven Spielberg, one of the master storytellers of our age, is mystifying.

The other exec producer is Tom Hanks, who also has a pretty decent reputation for engaging the hearts and minds of an audience, and together, of course, he and Spielberg were responsible for Band of Brothers, which was by any standards a seminal piece of television. This is part of the problem, because we sit down to The Pacific with soaring expectations, and indeed it is presented as a "companion piece" to Band of Brothers; the story of the Second World War as fought against the Japanese, rather than the story of the D-Day landings and their aftermath. But I regret to say that it is a companion rather as Ernie Wise was to Eric Morecambe, or Andrew Ridgeley to George Michael, or even Syd Little to Eddie Large. You get the picture.

Maybe it is unfair to compare The Pacific with Band of Brothers: different backdrop, different story. But from Shakespeare (whose play Henry V gave Band of Brothers its stirring title) to Spielberg to, heck, Starsky & Hutch, dramatic imperatives never change: we have to care about the characters, and we certainly have to be able to distinguish between them. Band of Brothers achieved this brilliantly, by devoting the whole of the first episode to the soldiers doing their military training in Georgia. We learnt to recognise them, to know their strengths and frailties, and by the time they parachuted into Normandy well into the second episode, we had invested time and emotion in their stories.

Here, by contrast, the writer Bruce McKenna seemed too anxious to get us to Guadacanal. There were some scenes round a Christmas dinner table back in the US of A, and another fleeting scene in which a young Marine said a rather stiff farewell to his father, but little more of what in literature is called a back-story to foster that all-important relationship between character and viewer. In our house, we cared only about a young man called Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), whose wealthy family wouldn't let him go off to war. I have no doubt that he will, but in the meantime, the individuals actually fighting the Japanese interested us less. And while the battle scenes brilliantly evoked the terrifying chaos of full-frontal warfare, we at home need to know roughly what's happening even if they in the jungle don't. It didn't help, either, that most of the fighting seemed to happen at night. Doubtless true, and great news for the effects department, but dramatically inconvenient.

If I'm being a little harsh, it's only because I expected so much. The preview DVDs arrived with a fabulously glossy booklet, in which no less a personage than Sophie Turner Laing, Sky's managing director of Entertainment & News, declared that each episode has "the scope, depth and impact of a movie". Well, if either of last night's episodes had been a movie, I'd have wanted a refund. I watched them with my wife, Jane, and 11-year-old son, Jacob, and afterwards we looked at the characters' photographs in the booklet. "Was he the bloke manning the machine gun?" "No, it was him." "What was his name?" "Not sure."

As for the credits, entire battles have been fought and lost in the time it took for them to roll. I can now tell you, should you want to know, the names of the props buyers and even the petty cash accountant on The Pacific, but not the names of more than two of the leading characters, which seems wrong somehow.

And one final gripe. The sentimentality in Band of Brothers was provided by real old soldiers whose personal testimonies bookended the episodes. Here, they don't do that, maybe because in the decade since Band of Brothers was made, so many more Second World War veterans have died. But because there has to be some sentimentality in the American depiction of war (multiple Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker being a notable exception), it is provided by the script. Last night, as our battle-weary Marines clambered back on board ship, a young chef told them: "You guys are on the front page of every newspaper in America. You're heroes back home."

I looked at my wife and she looked at me. "Schmaltz," we said. "Is that the chef's name," said Jacob. "Or is it one of those Marine guys?"