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The Pacific: A Valuable Tribute to a Dying Generation

The creative team behind HBO’s Band of Brothers is back to bring us another stirring ode to World War II-era warriors.

The Pacific follows the Marines who battled the Japanese army along the inhospitable terrains of the Philippines, the Netherlands East Indies, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.

The change of setting from Europe to islands crisscrossing the Pacific is enough to justify the new miniseries’ existence. And while The Pacific isn’t always as dramatically compelling as the historical record, it’s a valuable tribute to a dying generation.

The 10-part miniseries debuts at 9 p.m. EST Sunday night (March 14) with action that begins shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese forces were pummeling U.S. troops for a spell, and it looked like the attack’s momentum would carry the Asian nation to even more military victories.

Each one-hour installment starts with a brief background on the action to follow. World War II veterans reminisce about their Pacific-based combat missions in interviews interconnected by The Pacific co-producer Tom Hanks’ stoic narration.

The series leans on a series of books for inspiration, including Helmet for My Pillow, With the Old Breed, Red Blood, Black Sand, and China Marine. But it’s clear the interviews with the aged Marines also impacted the finished product.

And each time we see those old soldiers on screen, still vital, still able to recall the minute details of their heroism, we marvel at the sacrifices they made on the country’s behalf.

If it’s a storytelling gimmick to kickstart each episode in documentary fashion, it’s a darn good one.

The connective thread involves three Marines — poet warrior Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), John Basilone (Jon Seda, one of the few “name” actors in the solid ensemble), and Eugene B. Sledge (Joe Mazzello).

The latter’s character proves to be the most involving, as he overcomes a heart murmur diagnosis to enlist against the wishes of his father. Once the bullets start flying, it’s hard to blame his dad for wishing his son were anywhere else but crawling through these nightmarish jungles.

Modern war movies don’t hold back on the bloodier aspects of combat, a trend unofficially cemented with Steven Spielberg‘s 1998 epic Saving Private Ryan.

The Pacific continues in that vein without feeling exploitative or cheap. The carnage underscores the constant danger Marines faced as they poured onto battlefields already teeming with enemy soldiers.

Viewers will feel the concussive force of every mortar shell and sniper round, a visceral torrent nearly unmatched in modern war pictures.

The first two nights of The Pacific struggle to make us care for the main characters. Sometimes the action takes center stage, but it’s the nature of the storytelling — a fractured narrative routinely interrupted by action sequences — that initially makes it hard to connect with our heroes.

Such issues fade in future installments, but the ferocious battles only grow more intense as the miniseries forges ahead.

The fifth installment finds a near perfect marriage between war footage and the Marines’ personal lives. We see old friends reunite and watch as a green Marine evolves from a frightened young man into a reluctant warrior in the span of a few screen minutes.

The miniseries showcases the bravery, patriotism, and determination of these Marines, men left to fight — and die — with limited resources. But the series doesn’t sugarcoat them. One bitter, battle-hardened Marine knocks a gold tooth out of a dead comrade-in-arms and is later shown treating a dead Japanese soldier in cruel fashion. Some may argue such scenes attempt to show Marines acting inhumanely to their foes in order to equate the actions of U.S. forces and the Japanese army. But much of the misbehavior is confined to that single Marine.

It helps that the script manages to avoid some of the war movie clichés that can bring a production like The Pacific to a screeching halt.

Yes, the Marines in question tease each other about girlfriends and other masculine pursuits. But the miniseries also sheds new light on the work they did to defeat the Axis powers.

“You guys are on the front page of every newspaper in America. You’re heroes at home,” someone tells a Marine, catching him flat-footed.

Conservative audiences are routinely frustrated by some of HBO’s original programming, from liberal-leaning dramas like Recount to biased documentaries like Right America: Feeling Wronged.

With The Pacific, ideology is trumped by sturdy craftsmanship based on historical truths.

Consider The Pacific a bigger budgeted companion piece to Band of Brothers, and a shining example of what HBO can accomplish when it pools its storytelling resources — and clout — into a project worthy of its brand.