Monday, March 15, 2010

Band Of Brothers: Tokyo Drift

Like virtually all American males born after Vietnam and before Iraq, I revere and fetishize World War II. My playground days oddly predicted the runaway success of last year's Inglourious Basterds as I was the lone gentile in a lower school band of Jewish commandos seeking vengeance against the Nazis. World War II was the war our Boomer parents brought us up to love, it was what made our country great and cemented it as a force of good in the world. Its veterans, our grandfathers, were objects of respect and admiration. One of my favorite recollections of growing up with World War II was that any movie about it was okay to show to a young boy, regardless of his age. My youngest brother was allowed to watch Saving Private Ryan in its entirety at the tender age of ten, despite its infamous levels of ultraviolence.

Perhaps the mightiest and most recent enshrinement of the Second World War in the modern male mind is 2001's Band Of Brothers. The miniseries, depicting the exploits and derring-do of the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division from Normandy to the war's end, is the ultimate in male bonding. Many efforts have been made by television networks to create a TV show that captures the male audience in the same way that Sex And The City stands monolithic in the feminine psyche. Masturbatory celebrations of the broletariat like Entourage have tried and failed to clinch this oh-so-desirable title of Manliest Thing Ever, but BoB is the one thing that can truly claim to be loved by all American men. Guys might tell you they dream of floating around Los Angeles, going to parties, and banging supermodels, but deep in every young man's heart he wishes he could fight and die alongside his buddies against the forces of fascism, just like Grandpa.

Given the great love for Band Of Brothers, her sister series The Pacific has of course been eagerly anticipated.

Premiering last night on HBO, The Pacific strives to do for its titular theater what Band Of Brothers did for the war in Europe. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, America's favorite purveyors of Greatest Generation nostalgia, The Pacific tells the story of several United States Marines as they fight against the Empire of Japan from Guadalcanal all the way to Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and V-J Day. As the men behind it will tell you in interviews, the European Theater with its Nazi bad guys and spectacular battles (D-Day, Battle of the Bulge etc.) has been enshrined and memorialized so many times that people might sometimes forget that it was the Japanese who got us into that mess in the first place. The reasoning they give is that, while Pearl Harbor was clearly the cause of our entry into the fight, the European Theater was a much easier war to remember: it was a fight against pure evil in a land most Americans' ancestors came from or were at least familiar with. The Pacific was a struggle against a strange-looking enemy in places most modern American schoolchildren still cannot find on a map. On top of that, it was gruesome as hell.

Jungle warfare, malaria, amphibious assaults, a brutal and suicidal enemy: the Pacific Theater is not easily presented without sanitization which is why men who served in that bloody war don't have a Saving Private Ryan to call their own. The Pacific hopes to remedy that.

It will be savage, it will be saddening, it will be hard to swallow, but that is the way it was. The Pacific's first episode skips the "The One Where Ross From Friends Was Their CO" boot camp episode from the Band Of Brothers formula and jumps right into the US' first battle of the war, Guadalcanal. In "Part One" of The Pacific, our heroes storm the beaches only to find no enemies, the Japanese having retreated into the jungle. These Marines, trained to kill the enemy without a moments' hesitation (a gung ho officer repeatedly tells his boys to "Kill 'em all!" and continually refers to "the Japs" as "yellow monkeys"), are so shaken by the relatively low intensity of their first mission that the first casualty is an unfortunate Navy Corpsman in a nighttime friendly fire incident. With Band Of Brothers, we got a whole hour to meet our dramatis personæ before they were dropped into their first battle, the most spectacular and celebrated of the war. With The Pacific, it gets depressing and bloody from the get-go, which is to say nothing of the carnage we will encounter once the real fighting starts later in the episode.

I myself am the grandson of a European Theater veteran, so the war stories passed down through my family are of that war. Whenever Battleground comes on TV, my dad will chime in "You know, your grandpa was in that battle." The Pacific seems like a forgotten war, lost in the shadows of historical guilt and national sadness. I hope Spielberg and Hanks achieve their objective of reminding Americans and the world of what life was like for the men and women who served in that hellish war. If the first episode is any indication, its a history lesson that everyone should tune in to.