The Second World War has been an interest of mine since I was a kid, bordering on an obsession. In this, I’m hardly unique; it can be fairly argued that the entirety of what we reckon as modern culture dates from the period immediately after the war ended. It shaped the political struggles, cultural shifts, and economic factors that made our society what it is. The first truly global war—a claim it stakes even over World War I—is a subject of deep fascination for historians, military strategists, biographers, economists, and specialists from almost every field of human endeavor. It literally left no part of our world untouched.
Merely as the subject of art and culture, WWII was of almost limitless influence. Leaving aside the dozens of outstanding novels, films, television programs, documentaries, and even games that used the war itself as a subject, the immediate aftermath of the war transformed our culture in myriad ways. The dispatch of Western troops to exotic climes had a tremendous effect on how U.S. society developed, in everything from immigration patterns to tiki culture; the film industries of several nations were rejuvenated by the war’s end; and here in America, the end of the war and the changes it wrought resulted in near-tectonic shifts in culture, from the rise of hard bop in jazz to the flourishing of film noir in Hollywood. When you look at the incalculable effect it had on every aspect of our lives, it’s hard not to be obsessed with the Second World War.
Which is why it’s strange that, in a period where looking back at WWII has practically become a national pastime, I somehow managed to avoid seeing a single frame of any of the three major WWII films produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks: Saving Private Ryan, Band Of Brothers, and The Pacific. I don’t automatically line up for any old movie about WWII (books are a different matter, sadly), but this is a film and two miniseries from one of America’s most respected filmmakers and one of its biggest movie stars; the film was almost universally praised, including by some of my favorite, hardest-to-please critics, and the two television series aired on a network that’s become famous for producing quality work in the medium. When I recently turned in an article to my editor at a magazine specializing in American history, I got into a lengthy conversation with her about my obsession with WWII, which she and her husband (a documentarian who directs a lot of WWII films for the History Channel) share. She started discussing Saving Private Ryan, and was shocked—as is everyone who knows of my passion for the topic—that I hadn’t seen it. And just like everyone else, she asked me why, and I had no easy answer.
As far as The Pacific goes, the answer is fairly innocuous; when it aired earlier this year, I was busy with other projects, and not having seen its predecessors, I had no compelling reason to watch. Saving Private Ryan was a casualty of prejudice: Steven Spielberg has never been one of my favorite directors. I’ve always been able to recognize his strengths, but they come accompanied by weaknesses I find overwhelming. He’s a masterful visual storyteller, but he’s fatally bad at ending his stories. He’s brilliant at spectacle, but not particularly gifted at subtlety. He’s a genius at developing mood, but frequently oblivious to tone. And he’s a filmmaker of great passion, but he’s often awkward at displaying emotion. He’s inextricably linked in many people’s minds to Stanley Kubrick (who is one of my favorite directors), which I find unfortunate, because Kubrick had almost all Spielberg’s strengths, with none of his weaknesses. The two most recent films of Spielberg’s I’d seen when Saving Private Ryan was released were Schindler’s List and Amistad, both of which I found deeply flawed and disappointing. (The former especially, since it began so well and had so many outstanding moments before it fell apart in the final hour). I wasn’t prepared to be burned again, so I put off seeing it for what turned out to be too long a time.
Once I finally returned to Saving Private Ryan, it had been canonized as a Very Important Film, and the way it was spoken of in hushed whispers like a boy king or a revised edition of the Bible just turned me off. Sometimes my natural contrariness gets me into trouble; I remember reading a critic’s description of The Sopranos as “the greatest cultural achievement of the past quarter-century,” a phrase which struck me as so ridiculously hyperbolic I deliberately avoided watching the show for years. I was only hurting myself, of course; once I finally saw the show, I loved it, though not as much as that critic did. But that’s the way these things work sometimes. In the A.V. Club review of Saving Private Ryan, Keith Phipps presciently noted that “it will probably be smothered in the sort of overstated, reverent praise that can obscure any movie, no matter how good,” and “it should be seen for what it is while it still can be.” That’s exactly what happened to the film, and I didn’t see it in time, which eventually led to my not seeing it at all.
Band Of Brothers was another matter. It happened to be released at the exact time of the horrific terror attacks of 9/11—which, depending on your perspective, was its good luck or its bad luck. Through no fault of its own, at any rate, it became part of a cultural conversation I wanted no part of: comparing 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror” to the Second World War. I thought, and still think, that this way of thinking is a terrible mistake, and Band Of Brothers happened to catch on to what I felt was a rapidly toxifying national zeitgeist. It was being championed by people who wanted to make the war on terror something it wasn’t, who wanted it to be a simple story of warfare and heroism, and who were squandering the international goodwill we achieved on that terrible, bloody day when everyone was an American. It was unfair of me to avoid Band Of Brothers because of the people using it for their propagandist purposes; a work of art is never to blame for the people who like it. But I did, and it eventually became associated in my mind with Saving Private Ryan.
Finally, though, my own curiosity got the better of me. The final straw was the across-the-board praise that The Pacific garnered; standards for HBO drama were significantly higher in 2010, and if it generated that much praise in the wake of Deadwood and The Wire, I felt I had a responsibility to take a look at it, just to feel like I was doing my duty as a critic. That’s what I told myself, anyway: The real reason was that I’d been on a binge of WWII reading, and I was jonesing for more. I’d torn through a collection of Joe Kubert’s essential Sgt. Rock comics, B.H. Liddell Hart’s engaging History Of The Second World War, Trevor Nevitt Dupuy’s exhaustive Military History Of World War II, and William T. Vollman’s astonishing Europe Central, and it wasn’t enough. I was finally ready to take the plunge. I’d set aside my mixed feelings about Spielberg, jettison my personal baggage, and watch all three in succession.
It probably will come as no surprise that, for the most part, it was The Sopranos all over again. Once again, I had allowed my distrust of marketing to get in the way of what was being marketed, and once again, I was the only loser. Saving Private Ryan is every bit the masterpiece it’s been made out to be, and deserves all the praise it’s received since its release. In a lot of ways, it seems like the movie Steven Spielberg was born to make, and it goes a long way as penance for all the missteps he’s made along the way. Only The Thin Red Line can really stand alongside it as the best WWII movie of the last 20 years, and watching it from beginning to end, twice in a row, I got that rare sensation of telling myself “I am watching a movie by a truly great director.” No one makes a movie like this as a fluke; all the great things about Spielberg’s talents are on display here, and almost none of the bad things. (An earlier, lesser version of Spielberg might have managed to turn the bookend scenes of the elderly James Ryan at Captain Miller’s grave into something that would have sunk the movie. Here, it works—it isn’t perfect, but at least to a degree, it doesn’t distract from what comes between.)
Much is made of the opening half-hour, depicting the harrowing, shattering assault on Omaha Beach, and these scenes are spectacular, no doubt; they’re the ones to which I refer when I say that only a great director could have made this movie. But equally impressive are the moments that follow, the quieter ones, though they’re no less intense. Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat deserve equal praise for depicting, in what is essentially an action-movie format, the kind of Big Questions that are usually reserved for smaller, more philosophical films: Is any goal worthy of the carnage of total war? How much value do we place on a single human life, and is one life worth more than another if it has symbolic value? Where do we find heroism and courage, and how do we deal with cowardice and failure? It’s always infuriating when a movie that dares to suggest that these questions have no easy answers, that life during wartime is a matter of terrible confusion and ambiguity, is accused of being unpatriotic or naïve; it’s to Saving Private Ryan’s credit that it manages to ask them without questioning the rightness of the Allied cause.
Band Of Brothers didn’t win me over as easily. For one thing, its story had a lot of problems: The characterization of Easy Company was lazily drawn, and the men were never as distinct and memorable as they were in Saving Private Ryan. And while much was made of the series’ historical authenticity, it often seemed to focus on minor details while eliding the bigger picture, skirting around its edges for story purposes. Worst of all, while its best moments were good indeed, its worst resembled the unfounded fears I’d had about Saving Private Ryan—that it would present the entire struggle in simplistic turns, throwing an amber-colored Greatest Generation light over the entire story, obscuring the textures and rough edges that gave the real men of war their color. Much of this, I fear, can be attributed to its origin in the pen of the late historian Stephen Ambrose, who wrote the book on which Band Of Brothers was based. I’ve never read it, but I’ve read a number of Ambrose’s other works, and they share a lot of qualities that got him in trouble when he was alive: a tendency to exaggerate his research, to draw in extremely broad strokes, and to miss important details in his search for a narrative that served his purposes.
The direction, too, was a tad slick: Especially by contrast with its predecessor, everything was a bit too clean, the camerawork a bit too stark, the actors a bit too pretty, and the pace a bit too pat. Essayist Lewis Lapham wrote, upon first seeing it, that it felt like he was watching a Gap commercial with armed combat; I wouldn’t go that far, but Band Of Brothers definitely polished away some of its predecessor’s brutal realism and replaced it with a glossy sheen. There’s much to praise in it; a few performances stand out (I especially enjoyed Ron Livingston as Captain Nixon), and the psychological bonds between the men of Easy are well-drawn. But overall, it seemed like a production that went out of its way to elude the very issues on which Saving Private Ryan tried to shine a light.
The Pacific, by contrast, felt like a redemption of the franchise, if it can be called that. Watching it all at once—thanks to a thoughtful friend who saved the entire series on DVR—it came across as much more coherent and well-made than Band Of Brothers. Once again, much of this can be attributed to the people behind the camera: Ambrose was gone (though his son served as a technical advisor), and head writer Bruce McKenna, who served the same function in Band Of Brothers, brought in a new group of writers, including the reliable George Pelecanos, to tighten things up considerably. Some directors returned from the first miniseries, but new blood, including HBO’s secret weapon, Timothy Van Patten, gave a much-needed fresh perspective. The Pacific also benefited from its subject matter: The Pacific campaign has always been underrepresented in WWII literature. It was strange and new, the fighting more savage and chaotic, and the strategy and tactics more improvised and brutal. This comes across extremely well onscreen, where the characters are in a near-constant state of shock at having to deal with the ever-shifting conditions and fatally high stakes. (I kept flashing to The Thin Red Line, and how some of its characters react with a natural horror that they have been sent to these beautiful, remote, almost alien locations, places no Westerner has ever seen… with orders to utterly destroy them.)
If taken, as I suggested before, as a sort of film franchise, the World War II of Hanks and Spielberg doesn’t entirely cohere; it scans as a masterful beginning, a mushy middle, and a redemptive ending. But that’s really the wrong way to take it, and that reading simply stems from my viewing experience after having foolishly avoided the movies for so long. They should be taken individually as what they are, an overall satisfying trio of stories, connected by historical commonality and the sympathetic outlook of their producers, flawed in places, but overall an entirely worthwhile addition to the canon of Second World War fiction. Hanks and Spielberg themselves are products of WWII, as are we all; they’ve done an exceptional job of reflecting that legacy and weaving it into their own creative work, and it’s to my shame that it took me so long to appreciate that.