TV Eye: War epic fails to hit its target

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The Pacific couldn't cope with the weight of its own profundity. Photo / Supplied
The Pacific couldn't cope with the weight of its own profundity. Photo / Supplied

Well the last shots have been fired, now the full-blown arguments can begin. Was The Pacific, the Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' production, which was perhaps the most monumental, and certainly the most expensive television series ever made, actually any good?

As its self-consciously epic theme music swelled for the last time on Monday night, I couldn't help but think it was a loss on points, not so much a huge failure but a bit of a missed opportunity.

Why this was so was a little harder to discern.

The firepower at its disposal was certainly impressive: Spielberg, Hanks, a US$150 million ($216 million) budget, the award-winning Band of Brothers as its highly regarded progenitor, a cast of thousands, the US$150 million budget ...

But the force stacked against it was no less immense: a vast, multifaceted, impossibly awful four-year campaign spread across the Pacific and Asia.

Unlike the American's European campaign, the key elements of which was so ably represented in Band of Brothers, the Pacific war was a much more amorphous story - and one that, as it turns out, was rather less easy to tell, even for a well-resourced 10-part series.

Certainly, as a visual and sensory experience, The Pacific was absolutely bludgeoning - often relentlessly so. Though two or three episodes - the Melbourne one in particular - gave us a little respite, the grim fight from foxhole to foxhole or up sheer volcanic cliffs in the rain became too much of a slog.

The Pacific definitely took the depiction of the horrors of war another step beyond Spielberg and Hanks' Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. The scene, for example, where young private Merriell "Snafu" Shelton (Rami Malek, in undoubtedly the stand-out performance from a very large cast) sat casually throwing pebbles into the open skull - plop, plop, plop - of a dead "Jap" was the most grimly repulsive thing I've ever seen on TV. I'm not sure it qualified as anything approaching entertainment.

Perhaps that's as it should be. It is not considered PC, no doubt with good reason, to lionise war in Hollywood these days. But I couldn't help missing the buzz of the old-fashioned war movie as John Wayne or similar pushed up the beach to glory. For the men in the foxholes in The Pacific there was no glory, little honour - and a ton of gore.

There was, too, very little context for all the grim-faced young boys taking it in the guts for freedom. I'm quite sure that you could watch this series and - if completely ignorant of the causes and courses of the Pacific war - have learned nothing more than it was fought on tiny indistinguishable islands with impossible names by young American boys against an enemy they mostly never saw.

But The Pacific's most important failure was as drama. In choosing to tell the unconnected stories of three men who didn't know each other - but either wrote books or were the subject of books - the series diluted its narrative to the point of giving none of its three main characters enough screen time to make us care for them.

Monday's final episode bore that out. The war over, the show attempted the tying of loose ends as the two surviving leads, Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie, returned home.

For an hour, they looked sad, they looked troubled, they looked like they were trying to tell us something which, in the end, never quite translated.

War's true hell - at least for those who survive - is an interior one, fought out of sight. And all the swelling music, long silences and 1000-yard stares don't equal an understanding of that - no matter how well-intentioned a tribute you might think you're paying.

The sad fact is that The Pacific crashed under the weight of its own profundity, so desperate was it to be a moving homage to the men of the so-called greatest generation who left Iowa and Alabama to fight fascism.

What The Pacific did tell me is that war is hell on TV too now. I'm sure that is as it should be too. So why, then, is it still called entertainment?

- NZ Herald

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