This is the fourth 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.
Ten months after the First Marine Division arrived in Melbourne, Australia to thunderous, grateful applause, the same Marines shipped out with a return ticket to their jungle nightmares, this time headed to an island called New Britain. As they celebrated Christmas on their naval transports, the First Marines’ military objective was relatively straightforward: the capture of two airfields and a Japanese military base on the western end of the island. Far more formidable than the gritty Japanese resistance was the island itself, and the Marines experienced a type of jungle warfare that made Guadalcanal look like a city park. A near-continuous downpour perpetually kept men miserable, wet and rotting and turned the island into a pile of loose mud that sucked boots off feet and rendered motorized vehicles virtually useless. Dysentery and fever ran wild, and matters hardly improved when the First Marines moved on to Pavuvu, another Japanese-held objective in the Russell Islands. Although the First Marines were at the beginning of a long passage through a hellish warscape, many of them later described New Britain as the lowest point of the war.
Episode Four, though not without strong moments, epitomizes the flaws of The Pacific. Despite the viewer having virtually no backstory on Private Robert Leckie, he and his squad remain the primary focus of the narrative. Alternate sources indicate that Leckie is a rich character, and James Badge Dale does excellent work with the material provided to him in bringing Leckie to life on-screen. Beyond his writing ambitions and hints about his chilly upbringing, we know little about Leckie from the storyline, but Dale’s portrayal successfully shows a man by turns both heroically courageous and overwhelmed by his sensitivity to the violence and dehumanization around him. Dale makes the most of his chances to shine in Episode Four, including a crackling confrontation with his commanding officer over some Japanese contraband, a riveting sequence in which he witnesses a fellow Marine’s gunshot suicide, and a series of interactions with a military psychiatrist after Leckie is evacuated to a hospital for stress-related fatigue.
In the absence of a larger context, however, Leckie might as well be in Vietnam. The relationship between the particular characters in The Pacific and the momentous events they rode and helped shape remains frustratingly vague. Although the opening narration provides the location of the action, the significance of these particular battles of men’s guns and humanity’s conflicting will is lost among the ponderous opening sequences and the occasional narrative non-sequitur.
The gaping lack in The Pacific seems almost deliberately emphasized by a bewildering plotting decision only a few minutes into Episode Four. Early in the episode, viewers finally get another tantalizing glimpse of Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello), the Marine private initially denied the ability to enlist over a heart murmur. Mazzello is a winning, charismatic actor, and Episode Four dedicates all of three minutes showing him in a training drill at Camp Elliott in the United States before returning to New Britain, after which … we don’t see Sledge again in this episode. The spastic inclusion of a single scene showing Sledge’s whereabouts is simply a terrible choice on the part of the series’ creators. Not only does it raise the question of “Why the hell is this one scene in this episode?”, it also emphasizes the over-reliance on a single narrative thread in what is supposed to be a look at the war through the eyes of an ensemble cast.
Private Sledge is lucky to be included, however. Left out of Episode Four completely — barely even mentioned, despite being a primary character — is Sergeant John Basilone (Jon Seda). Basilone, already more of a concept than a character because of weak plotting, doesn’t appear at all in Episode Four, which prompted me to ask the television, “Who’s directing these episodes, Stevie Wonder?” (Thanks, McClane!) As a result, Episode Four consists almost entirely of Leckie’s journey from his unit’s battle with the cruel elements of South Pacific warfare to Leckie’s personal struggle with combat stress and fatigue, ultimately landing him in a psychiatric unit after he begins wetting himself in his sleep. Dale does an admirable job as the de facto leading man of the series, and if nothing else, The Pacific is turning into quite a résumé for Dale’s acting career.
The problem is, The Pacific so far is pretty much that “nothing else.” The scenes are beautifully shot; the actors all deliver on the material provided; the subject matter could hardly be more grave. Yet the cinematography and acting are window-dressing on a smoky, cracked pane of glass revealing little about the meaning of the events taking place on the other side. The character development is fitful at best; the plot gives the appearance of a by-the-numbers Wikipedia article; and the Japanese soldiers, among the most fascinating subjects in military history, remain an elusive night-time phantom, courageous in the face of certain death (and impressive to the Marines, as noted in our recap of Episode One), but without any grounding to tell us why they behave that way.
A great story can take time to develop, and HBO’s history is littered with top-notch dramas that doled out the greater context of the story in painstaking bits and pieces, from “The Wire” to “The Sopranos” to the elder sibling of The Pacific, Band of Brothers. To succeed with this strategy, however, a narrative must deliver an intriguing reason for its own existence early in the proceedings, typically in the form of a compelling, character-driven plotline; otherwise, the viewer has little incentive to invest the upfront time for the potential dramatic payoff later. Four episodes in, The Pacific is in danger of collapsing on its own penurious paucity of these elements.
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]