In the July 9th Times Literary Supplement, the cultural critic Clive James reviewed the HBO miniseries “The Pacific,” and his tone was one of what might have been. “The first casualty of this Pacific War was the script” is the sub-title of the piece, and James takes the writers of the miniseries to task for numerous sins of omission, and for misreading history. James is Australian, and is particularly vexed by both the careful treatment of the Japanese and the portrait of his homeland. He writes that Japanese racism “went beyond language and custom and far into sadism, with the torture of helpless victims as standard practice.” The “moral equivalence” on display in “The Pacific” is a liberal concoction, and one that must be combated. There is one sadist on the American side, the private from New Orleans called Snafu, and what the “The Pacific” fails to make clear is that the Japanese side was comprised entirely of Snafus, their barbarism institutionalized by Japanese society. When it comes to the episode set in Melbourne, James homes in on the little things: there is no acknowledgment that Australian men of fighting age were absent, and there is not attempt to deal with the complicated relations between Australians and their American visitors.
But these are secondary complaints. James’s main thrust is against the dialogue and structure of “The Pacific.” The dialogue demonstrates that its writers’ “mentalities are saturated by the movies and by nothing else,” and James adduces a moment when a marine says the Japanese are “either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.” It’s a silly line, and one I don’t remember, but the dialogue in “The Pacific” is not its notable attribute. When James faults the writers for failing to have the characters note the concurrence of American victory on Guadalcanal and Soviet victory in Stalingrad, he’s not simply asking too much of the writers. He’s asking them to violate one of the themes of “The Pacific”: that the marines, fighting and dying in terrible conditions, thousands of miles from home, were not able to think about much beyond their immediate survival. James’s structural laments are more extensive:
What is true for the movies goes double for a mini-series, where no matter how lavish the spectacle, the focus is tighter on the narrative. But whole episodes of “The Pacific” go by in which almost nothing happens that might keep your brain alive, even when hundreds of stuntmen pretending to be Japanese are running out of the jungle in order to fall down in heaps.
The storylines for the episodes turn around the real-life vicissitudes of three or four individual ex-marines, and you aren’t very far into the overall narrative, partly compiled from the books two of those marines write afterwards, before you realize that a mistake has been made. In “Band of Brothers” the focus of the story was Easy Company, whose personnel were almost all replaced as time went on. The appearances and disappearances happened within a tight framework. Here the framework is too big: a whole division of marines.
“The Pacific” is a fragmented experience, one that moves along in fits and starts, at its own pace, not beholden to any conventional dramatic structure. The fighting is a loud, confusing mess, and for the viewer it can be difficult to piece together the physical space of the battlefields (the notable exception being the early battle saved by Basilone, for which he is awarded the Medal of Honor). The middle episodes are devoted to the fighting on the island Peleliu, a place few viewers would have heard of beforehand. The main characters fade in and out of the show—the early episodes belong to Basilone and the colorful Leckie, and then Leckie vanishes, replaced by Sledge. But where James sees these as faults, I would argue just the opposite—they are “The Pacific’s” primary virtues.
“The Pacific” is not “Band of Brothers,” nor could it have been. The geographical difference between the European and Pacific theaters, the difference between a continent and an archipelago, has unavoidable ramifications. Instead of a penetrating advance through northern European fields, forests, and hamlets, the war in the Pacific was an endless island-hop, and a battle to exterminate an entrenched, crazed enemy. I’m thinking of one of the most impressive and harrowing sequences in “Band of Brothers,” when Easy Company is pinned down in the Ardennes and commanded to hold against an interminable artillery barrage. It’s a horrific demonstration of modern mechanized warfare, but also endemic to the European theater. There was no place for massed artillery in the Pacific war—shipping around quantities of large guns wasn’t practicable. The best sequence in “Band of Brothers” is unimaginable in “The Pacific.” Instead we get, James says, “hundreds of stuntmen pretending to be Japanese…running out of the jungle in order to fall down in heaps.”
This gets at a larger issue, which James uncomfortably acknowledges: what if the war in the Pacific was “just too big a mess, too shapeless, too widespread, and, above all, too horrible” to evoke within the limits of a TV miniseries? His curious answer is that, even if the viewer subscribes to this view, he still has “the duty of registering” how the miniseries “fails even to fulfill the elementary requirements of a good adventure story.” Maybe it’s more senseless than curious. “The Pacific,” in intention and execution, is not an adventure story. It’s a first-person war story. Its fealty is not to the viewer, but to the documents upon which it’s based, and to the marines who fought and died in the war against the Japanese.
“The Pacific” came to be in no small part because of the clamoring of veterans who wanted their story told on the same scale as “Band of Brothers.” Spielberg and Hanks have, since “Saving Private Ryan,” exhibited an uncommon devotion to telling World War II stories and honoring veterans, and “The Pacific” may be more a result of their feelings of civic duty than of a desire to fashion a big hit. The nature of “The Pacific”—the transient characters, the incoherent and repetitive battles, the waiting for the next fight, the big mess of it all—owes everything to their clout. Absent the blind faith HBO executives put in them and their creative team, “The Pacific” doesn’t get made. At first glance it’s amazing that Spielberg and Hanks, both devotees of dramatic convention, were attracted to such an unconventional story. But also consider their literalism, and their desire to honor veterans of the Pacific war through the accuracy of the miniseries, convention be damned. In some ways the nature of “The Pacific” was inevitable. By prefacing every episode with interviews with veterans (as they did in “Band of Brothers”), Spielberg and Hanks signaled that what follows is history transcribed to the TV screen.
Sifting through his complaints I sensed James found “The Pacific” boring, which is, of course, his prerogative. At times, it show is boring. But boredom is surely a big part of being a soldier. The show recreates what it felt like to be a marine fighting the Japanese, and when it’s not boring, it is by turns moving, engrossing, exciting, disturbing, and exhausting. To judge “The Pacific,” then, by a conventional rubric, when its provenance and purpose are so unique, is to badly miss the point.