Last week, in comments, someone was saying that they were surprised there's never been a big Hollywood movie made out of the life of John Basilone. Now, before I saw The Pacific, I couldn't have told you much about Basilone beyond my vague idea that he was a World War II hero, but after this episode of The Pacific, I can tell you that not only was he a hero, but he was also an amazing bad-ass, able to keep his head under the worst of situations and, seemingly, turn the tides of major battles singlehandedly. Now, obviously, all of the Marines fighting in those terrifying night battles on Guadalcanal were giving it their all (and some, indeed, paid the ultimate price), but the story of Basilone's heroism in one particular battle becomes the centerpiece of this episode, and it saves an hour that feels a little center-less up until that point.
That's one of the problems with The Pacific in general here in the early going. Instead of taking the Band of Brothers approach of slowly ramping us up to the point where we know all of the characters before they're dropped into hell, The Pacific just drops us into hell right away with them and expects us to keep up. The first two hours of this show don't do a whole lot to distinguish our central threesome - Sledge, Leckie and Basilone - beyond the very broadest of strokes. Leckie is the intellectual who's scarred by what he sees. Basilone is the veteran Marine who realizes that what he's up against is something he's never seen. And Sledge is the kid stuck back home who really wants to go, getting long lectures from his father about the series' theme.
And what is that theme? Survival. Or, more importantly, surviving something like this with your soul intact. (After all, as Dr. Sledge says, he's seen soldiers come home with their very souls ripped in two.) The battles on Guadalcanal are all about staying one step ahead of the enemy's plans, which is almost impossible to do, since the enemy's plans are, by definition, scattershot and unknowable. The entire goal of the Japanese operation is to keep the Americans on their heels, unable to predict just when or where the opposing forces will strike, thereby wearing them down. It becomes a game of one side outlasting the other, and while that's an optimal game to play if you have the numerical advantages, it's also uniquely susceptible to momentum-changing moments, like Basilone's night of glory.
I do wonder, however, if just dumping us into the thick of things isn't keeping us from knowing these people beyond the most cursory of ideas about who they might be. Particularly when it comes to some of the supporting characters, it often seems that they might as well be interchangeable. I'd say this was some sort of point the series is making about the dehumanizing effects of war or something, but it certainly doesn't seem like the series wants us to view them this way, since all of these characters are given their own little moments to be individuals. I realize that the classic war movie template of meeting the characters in peacetime, then seeing them slowly learn how to be soldiers, then seeing them at war (a template Band of Brothers followed) is one that's been done thousands of times at this point, but it's one that definitely allows for us to meet our characters and see how war changes them. By not really providing that template to cling to, these first two hours of The Pacific can feel a little disorienting at times, I fear.
That said, I think hour two does a lot to fill in who our main three characters are, at least, particularly Basilone. The scenes during that nighttime battle are just terrifically done, as he takes out Japanese soldier after Japanese soldier with one machine gun, has to lift another one (still searing hot) with his bare hand and races out into the midst of enemy fire to move the mountains of corpses aside to provide a better line of fire for his fellow Marines. He even engages in hand-to-hand combat with several enemy soldiers. The guy's a stone-cold hero, but he also gets that what makes him a hero is his luck as much as his courage. He could have died, like his friends, had he stepped one way or the other at just the wrong moment. That he didn't would be enough to give most men a complex or post-traumatic stress disorder or something, but Basilone understands that the job is still ahead of him. If he makes it out of the war alive, he can worry about the awful nature of fate and chance when he makes it back home. (This is also nicely elucidated in the scenes where the guy next to Basilone is hit through the neck by a bullet and the scene where Manny talks about how just a few more ounces of gunpowder would have meant the end of him while overlooking that trench full of dead bodies … until he does lose his life.)
The Basilone stuff is so strong in this episode that it's almost a pain to cut away to one of the other two, but at least Leckie is also on Guadalcanal and slowly realizing, just like Basilone, that everything could go horribly, horribly wrong at any given moment. The show mostly uses him as comic relief, as he and the other guys just try to hang on long enough for the ships to come back and get them out of hell, but the scene where he and the other Marines raid the Army crates has that nice moment when Leckie pries open the captain's case and finds all of the artifacts of his life, reminding us that even these higher-ranked personnel have lives back home that have to remain mere ghosts while they're at war. The less said about Sledge the better, though. That scene with his dad was fine, but it felt like an interruption of the action in a way that was unnecessary. (I was getting, just fine, that people can be utterly destroyed by war just from the scenes on Guadalcanal, thanks.)
But The Pacific is a series that's as much about individual moments as anything else. I love the horror of that scene where the Marines have to dig each other out, the way one is just reduced to panicked tears and can't even work a shovel. I love the look on Chesty Puller's face when he realizes that he doesn't have enough men (or he wouldn't without Basilone). I love the sad weariness on the faces of Leckie and his friends when they're in the mess hall, asking the cook for coffee and slowly realizing that they're heroes back home. And I love the blood left by the dead soldier at episode's beginning crushing the thick grass on the ground, one of the last acts he will commit on this Earth. The Pacific is about survival and keeping your soul in line, sure, but it's also about impermanence, about the fact that luck only runs so far and then, oh then, it's over, sometimes before you're even ready.
- Sorry for the lateness of this week's write-up. I normally try to write these on Saturdays, but this week prevented me from doing so. We'll hopefully have these up within a half hour of the East Coast airing in the future.
- I have to say I wasn't totally on board with the actor playing the cook at the end. He seemed a little too forced in how emphatic he was.
- I like when Puller tells Basilone he'll put in for the guy to get a medal, and Basilone looks as if that's the last thing he wants in the world. Most war stories turn this moment into one of crowning achievement, but Basilone just looks as if he really needs a long, long sleep.