Almost 10 years ago Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg teamed up to produce “Band of Brothers,” the thick-blooded story of a U.S. Army company making its way from Normandy to the end of World War II in Europe. The 10-part HBO miniseries cost $120 million. This month the Hanks-Spielberg team launched its follow-up, “The Pacific,” also in 10 parts and on HBO. That one cost $200 million and remixes an almost identical soundtrack. The similarities end where history bows to worship.
The first at least made an effort to render war the way “All Quiet on the Western Front” was about war: Valor matters, but it doesn’t trump horror no matter how noble the mission. The second is a memorial to war, much like the strangely Third Reich-like World War II memorial in Washington. It’s more self-conscious pride than sorrow, more gauze than blood, and disturbingly flirty with propagandizing war’s necessity.
Lines like “this great undertaking for god and country” and “everybody’s got to make sacrifices” (a strange line to hear in a decade of wars when no one but military families have made sacrifices) occur early on. When a young man can’t join the service because of his health, he’s crushed and cries the tears of an Achilles denied. As if on cue, when a brainy Marine is asked to tell his company “why we’re here,” he quotes from the “Illiad” (“Without a sign, his sword a brave man draws/ And asks no omen but his country’s cause”) – an unfortunate reference, the Trojan War marking, as historian Barbara Tuchman put it, the first step in Western civilization’s march of folly. When a hero dies, violins are louder than bullets (just like the water geysers are the loudest things at the World War II memorial) – “a lie about death,” as the critic Nancy Franklin describes it. Far from an original or groundbreaking production, this is the Pacific war as Life magazine snapshot it 65 years ago: Sanitized of context or nuance or anything else that might interfere with the deification of the American fighting man. This is the kind of movie you make to jazz up men for battle, not trouble us with reflection.
I’ve only seen the first episode of the spectacle, though I sensed I’d seen them all before the first frame. When “Band of Brothers” came out anticipation couldn’t be too dented by advance publicity. That’s no longer possible. Between YouTube, Facebook, blogged spoilers, reviews more wordy than the screenplay and saturation marketing, the original is old news before you see it. You can safely wait for the DVD collection as a Father’s Day present and miss nothing. Not that there’s too much to miss in a sequel that speaks at least as much about where we are as a society today than it does about the war 65 years ago, beginning with the motive behind “The Pacific.”
When Maya Lin designed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., veterans groups were upset that the memorial didn’t pay homage to living soldiers. So a sculpture was commissioned to show three fighting men (one black, one Latino, one white) frozen next to the memorial. Then Korean War veterans complained they had no memorial, so they got theirs (an appropriately grim one showing a platoon of soldiers walking unquestioningly in a winter of that war). Then the women and nurses of Vietnam complained that they’d been ignored, and they got their memorial.
“Pacific” was made the same way. Veterans of the Pacific war wanted their “Band of Brothers,” as if that series didn’t speak a truth universal enough about the entire war. But it did. The Pacific war was not a sequel. It is here, with all the hand-me-down fatigues of war sequels.
War worship aside, I’m also getting tired of our nation looking back at World War II for validating heroics of brotherhood and egalitarian selflessness on the battlefield when we can’t muster the same sense of national purpose today at home, where matters are slightly easier. The wealthier the country has become as a whole, the more unequal and fragmented in its parts. The more idealistic we are in our easy nostalgias, which cost nothing, the more grasping and Darwinian we are in our laws and businesses, which cost millions their chance at a decent living. Equal opportunity and the dignity of those who have less, let alone those who need more, is held in contempt.
“Band of Brothers” may have worked because it resonated with what made the nation into what it is. “Pacific” works only in so far as it reflects what the nation has become: a monument to itself more bloated with pride than possibilities.