Simon previews Spielberg/Hanks/HBO'S THE PACIFIC!!

While the world (including admittedly myself) has gone gaga over Glee, and no matter how many plaudits it will inevitably continue to pick up after it reconvenes after the infuriating mid-season break in April, 2010 will not be remembered as the year that saw TV musicals become hip again. Instead, it will rightly be remembered as the year that the team behind the astounding HBO mini-series Band of Brothers- Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks- returned to our screens with The Pacific. The HBO site offers the following synopsis of the mini-series:

€œThe Pacific tracks the intertwined real-life stories of three US Marines Robert Leckie, John Basilone, and Eugene Sledge across the vast canvas of the Pacific Theatre during World War II. The mini-series follows these men and their fellow Marines from their first battle with the Japanese on Guadalcanal, through the rainforests of Cape Gloucester and the strongholds of Peleliu, across the bloody sands of Iwo Jima and through the horror of Okinawa, and finally to their triumphant but uneasy return home after V-J Day.€
If ever there were need to justify my excitement for this incredible looking mini-series, then here is the Super Bowl slot€

Band of Brothers remains the greatest mini-series to ever hit TV screens on either side of the Atlantic, and will continue to be while high-concept series with apparently short narrative possibilities are bloated into lengthy runs to appease fans and more importantly accountants. It was an astonishingly accomplished production, and could easily be considered more as a ten hour feature rather than the ten episodes it actually screened across. The first thing that made Band of Brothers immediately brilliant were the casting decisions- the genius, but initially baffling choice of David Schwimmer as the vilified Captain Sobel stands out above all else: Schwimmer€™s performance was far more subtle and measured than the sometimes cruel caricatures painted by the personal accounts of the surviving members of Easy Company in Stephen E. Ambrose€™s excellent book. Crueller evaluations of Schwimmer€™s performance have pointed out the lack of range that has hampered pretty much everything he has put his acting €œskills€ to in the aftermath of Friends (even crueller called it simple a grumpy Ross in a uniform), but the fact is, Schwimmer breaks his own pattern by committing a genuinely divisible character to screen without ever becoming pantomimey. And the fact that he lasts a fairly insignificant amount of screen time cements the worth of the casting decision- how easy it would have been for Hanks and Spielberg to choose one more notable or recognisable actor to drive the series (in the same vein that Joseph Fiennes is ostensibly helming Flash Forward from an acting level) and also to drive initial interest in the series. Instead Schwimmer, by far the most famous of an enormous cast appears in just three episodes as a prologue to the main development of Easy Company. Aside from Scwimmer, the cast was made up of largely unheralded actors- just familiar enough to inspire a spark of recognition, but not enough crucially to interfere with the audience€™s ability to grow with the actors as the characters developed. While based on the Band of Brothers book by Stephen E. Ambrose (I urge any history buffs to go out and read all of his books), the mini-series was further enriched by an endearing and at time heart-wrenching set of interviews with the surviving members of Easy Company, who€™s first-hand accounts of their experiences added further intricate detail to the already wonderful testimonies given to Ambrose during his research. It is therefore extremely pleasing to see that The Pacific was borne out of a similar process- Hanks, Spielberg and Gary Goetzman- the comparatively unheralded third of the triumvirate- have exhaustively compiled information to once again offer a (hopefully) unrivalled set of personal accounts of the Pacific campaign. It was those personal interviews, segments of which were shown before and after each episode, that were one of the most affecting components of Band of Brothers. Particularly affecting was the final episode of Band of Brothers (€œPoints€), whose grand finale was a final selection of interviews with the real men of East Company, who until now had remained nameless. In those last few moments, after learning of the post-war fate of each surviving member of East Company, the interviewees are named, putting faces to the characters we have become so familiar with, and bringing the final dramatic hammer blow that reinforced the fact that these men lived through such astounding and affecting times. A genius construct in a truly fantastic production.

Based in part upon the booksHelmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie, With the Old Breed and China Marine by Eugene B. Sledge and Red Blood, Black Sand, by Chuck Tatum, The Pacific is once again further enriched by original interviews conducted with veterans and survivors, giving it the extra personal edge that made Band of Brothers more appealing. I cant help but hope that these interviews will in someway frame the events of The Pacific the same way they did in Band of Brothers. The marketing campaign behind Band of Brothers was strangely restrained in comparison to some of the more recent tent-pole TV releases, especially on this side of the Atlantic- a fact probably symptomatic of the somewhat controversial BBC2 airing slot which at once gave it greater artistic credence, but at the same time robbed it of a greater initial audience. One of the problems with current TV series, even including Glee and Flash Forward is that they are so high-concept- or more appropriately genre-specific as in the case of Glee- that they suffer when they are extended too far.

Flash Forward has a ticking clock as its central narrative premise, and surely cannot survive beyond the moment of revelation (the realisation of the flash forward itself) even if Lost has been far extended beyond its initially intended life, while Glee will begin to grate on even the most ardent of fans after a fourth season at most. Conversely, the relatively short run of ten episodes allowed Band of Brothers enough space to develop characters and dramatic events better than a two or three hour feature ever could, while still leaving audiences with a considerable thirst for more. Into this context comes The Pacific, some seven years after Band of Brothers was originally aired, packing the same credentials, and seemingly taking the same approach in terms of casting and research as its predecessor. The largely unfamiliar cast is headed by Jospeh Mazzello- Jurassic Park€™s Tim Murphy (grandson of Richard Attenbrough€™s John Hammond) as Eugene Sledge; Jon Seda- probably best known for his role in Homicide: Life on the Street as John Basilone; and James Badge Dale- who can include The Black Donnellys, 24 and The Departed on his CV- as Robert Leckie.

As I€™ve said, it was Band of Brothers approach of casting relatively peripheral actors- Donnie Wahlberg, Ron Livingston and Damian Lewis predominantly- that made for better character development (at least in terms of audience empathy), and in taking the same approach, The Pacific looks to have sealed the same effect. Into this company, more familiar faces like relative veteran William Sadler (Shawshank Redemption) offer added credence as figures of authority- the same role Dale Dye played in Band of Brothers with his Colonel Sink, further enriching the audience€™s initial attraction to the characters. Mercifully, though I€™m sure disappointingly for certain elements of the more avid Band of Brothers fan base, the team behind The Pacific chose not recast the players from the first Hanks/Spielberg/HBO collaboration (with the exception of Freddie Farnsworth who has the auspicious honour of appearing in both). To do so would have been to draw too many specific comparisons between the two mini-series when they should be viewed in parallel to one another, and not as rival productions. Saying that, if The Pacific can recapture anything like the sustained longevity that Band of Brothers has enjoyed years after it was originally aired- it is still the highest selling TV DVD boxset (at $200m revenue) and Blu-Ray sales have been remarkable since it became available for around the £17.99 bracket in Britain- the new mini-series will be an unmitigated success. So there is bound to be an element of healthy competition. And with a budget of USD $150m (Australian $200m) the mini-series must surely be aiming towards that same level of critical and financial success.

Like Band of Brothers, which was filmed mostly in England (with the exception of the German and Austrian locations, which were shot in Switzerland), The Pacific was filmed on location, to the advantage of local economy and acting talent. It was filmed in Australia for the most part, and currently stands as the most expensive TV series ever made there, while also creating a healthy economic boost for the country. The casting of extras and minimal characters remains somewhat difficult to investigate, but if it is anything like Band of Brothers, which featured a host of British talent including Simon Pegg, James McAvoy, Dexter Fletcher and Michael Fassbender, The Pacific will hopefully include some faces familiar to Australian audiences. The one real shame about the series is the choice of channel- rather than go for a terrestrial TV slot, as with Band of Brothers€™ BBC2 home, this time Sky Movies have earned the somewhat prestigious honour of airing it. The reason I say shame is that, even in this mass-consumerist age, Sky Movies remains an opt in service, meaning there will be a significant portion of The Pacific€™s prospective audience who aren€™t able to watch without forking out the necessary extra readies for an excessively expensive movie service whose scheduling in my opinion could do with a serious overhaul if they are to continue to claim to be the best movie subscription service currently available. I for one will be forgetting my problems with the service and signing up again in the coming weeks in advance of the March start date.

If I were a gambling man (which my track-record with horses assuredly shows I€™m not) I€™d put my own personal fortune on The Pacific following in the celebrated shoes of Band of Brothers and picking up a bucketful of nominations as it begins to air this Spring. Look out for a follow-up once I€™ve had time to watch some of the episode. The Pacific will air on HBO in America, HBO Australia and Sky Movies in the UK from March 14th, and everywhere else soon after.
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