This is the second in a multi-part series examining the origins and progress of HBO’s original miniseries The Pacific. Full critical analysis will be reserved until the series has completed its run. Please note that minor spoilers are included below.
Following the initial defeat of the Allied naval force by the Japanese at the island of Guadalcanal, in the wake of the United States Marines’ August 1942 amphibious landing there, the U.S. Navy retreated to open sea to avoid destruction. As a result, 11,000 U.S. Marines, including the First and Seventh Marine Divisions, were stranded on Guadalcanal without most of the food, medical supplies, ammunition, and equipment brought to help them hold the island. Although the Marines had successfully taken Guadalcanal and the critical Japanese airfield there, they soon faced a determined Japanese effort to re-take the island. Several large forces of Japanese infantry, supported by Japanese naval gunnery and air power, attacked U.S. Marines at Guadalcanal in a series of battles in August and September 1942. The Marines, severely undernourished and many suffering from dysentery and malaria, faced a more experienced and better supplied enemy without reinforcement or re-supply over a course of several months. Bogged down, weary, and often confused about their strategic situation, the Marines grimly waited out the situation.
Unfortunately, in Episode Two of The Pacific, the series’ creators seem intent on subjecting the viewer to the television equivalent of the early days of Guadalcanal: a plot with its boots stuck in the mud, aggravated by confusing storms of light and sound that reveal virtually nothing about the tactical situation on the island and leave the viewer vaguely unsettled in the stomach. After an opening credits sequence that seems to grow exponentially more ponderous each week, Episode Two does a fair job of setting the stage, slamming home the plight of the U.S. troops with a dispiriting attack by an unseen Japanese sniper, followed by a foxhole-view of saturation bombing attacks during the night. With no sea or air support, the Marines could only dig in and wait out such attacks, sure only that the Japanese air campaign would be followed by advancing Japanese soldiers.
Episode Two of The Pacific follows this story from ground level through the infantryman’s view from the jungle floor, and initially the staging and cinematography work to convey to the viewer the jolting, shocking experience of clutching the bottom of a foxhole, unable to see or move, while random chance decides whether a descending bomb or artillery shell will settle one’s fate in a flash of brutal light. Likewise, the initial staging of the combat scenes on the jungle floor illustrates the desperate confusion of nighttime firefights, with myriad friendly and enemy combatants racing through the night, visible only in the last moment before deciding whether to fire, with hissing bullets slashing the air all around. Episode Two wholly commits itself to this perspective.
Alas, like the shaky-cam fight scenes in action movies such as The Bourne Supremacy, the use of ultra-realistic perspective in depicting jungle combat works in small doses but not for entire scenes. Episode Two dedicates so much of its time to dimly lit firefights, shadowy running figures and strung-out binges of explosions that it becomes far too easy to lose the thread of what is happening and to whom. It’s like watching a film about a kidnapping with a blindfold and a sack over your head - it may be realistic, but that focus on realism severely hinders a story that desperately needs character development and dramatic context after an opening episode that provided little of either. Episode Two feels as stalled as the Allies’ campaign, at a time when a ten-episode miniseries really needs to begin developing momentum. That momentum needn’t result from historically inaccurate victories or unrealistic acceleration of troop movements - plot development needn’t be kinetic to be dramatically meaningful. Episode Two simply doesn’t take us anywhere from a structural standpoint, beyond the admittedly critical point of establishing the Marines’ desperate situation at Guadalcanal.
Certainly, the opportunities are there. Episode Two completes the split into two storylines begun in Episode One. (There remains a minor sub-plot that may develop into a third storyline.) The first story arc, which was the focus of Episode One, follows freshly enlisted Private First Class Robert Leckie (James Dale Badge), a writer turned lethal machine-gunner, along with his wide-eyed but courageous fellow recruits; the second storyline follows Sergeant John Basilone (Jon Seda), a career non-commissioned officer in the Marines who reached Guadalcanal with longtime comrades and fellow NCOs J.P. and Manny. Episode Two focuses more intently on Basilone and his skilled, heroic actions during frequent battles with enemy infantry. Alternating between the surreality of soldiers openly foraging for food during daylight hours and their huddling for cover during the long, bombastic nights, Episode Two begins to hint at a dramatic contrast between the phlegmatic, taciturn Basilone and the soulful poet-turned-killer Leckie. There’s simply very little grist for either mill, however, and Episode Two generally functions as a superficial procedural on the dispiriting, dirty grunt work of Marines in the Pacific theater of World War II. That’s interesting enough to hold our attention but hardly worthy of the series’ creators.
These are, after all, skilled filmmakers, and Episode Two certainly has its moments, including a brilliant sequence in which Basilone singlehandedly moves a scorching hot machine gun to provide supporting fire for his troops, giving himself third-degree burns in the process of mowing down wave after wave of Japanese soldiers attempting to overrun the Marines’ position. The Pacific also continues its deft work in finding the moments of levity that men in combat allow themselves, such as the starving, grimy Marines’ joyful looting of freshly delivered supplies meant for newly arrived, well-fed Army troops. As with Episode One, there doesn’t appear to be a weak link among the actors, and the dialogue comes across as real and unforced.
Overall, however, Episode Two feels sluggish and aimless, weighed down by its historical narrative. There’s a gripping story here, one of the most compelling stories in military history, but The Pacific is struggling to bring that story to life. One minor development in Episode Two is the medical clearance given Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) to enlist for combat. Mazzello is a winning, fresh-faced actor, and his addition to the main cast seems likely to create opportunities for good storylines. The Pacific could use a few of those right now to separate itself from the modern pack of visually impressive but sterile war procedurals.
HBO’s The Pacific airs Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who holds down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]