With Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg as executive co-producers, Band of Brothers, HBO‘s 10-hour new-fall-season $120-million blockbuster World War II miniseries, is for all intents and purposes the television sequel to Saving Private Ryan. (World War II, of course, was itself a sequel; the third in that series has yet to go into production, though various drafts have been circulating for years.) In a general way it’s also a sequel to Hanks‘ last HBO project, the equally long and large From the Earth to the Moon, which followed his star turn in Apollo 13 as the night, the day. One feels as if it’s a case of boys having too much fun playing to come home.
The series, based on a nonfiction book by Stephen E. Ambrose, who served as a historical adviser on Saving Private Ryan, follows ”Easy“ Company of the 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne -- foot soldiers who dropped out of the sky -- from boot camp to Berchtesgaden, with the Normandy invasion (where they made the hedgerows safe for the cast of Private Ryan), Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge along the way. It‘s a kind of Greatest Hits of the European Theater. For a few years now we have been experiencing something of a renaissance in WWII awareness, as the Greatest Generation (in the Brokavian formulation) begins its last hurrah, and high-profile films like Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line and Pearl Harbor apply the state of their art to more perfectly replicate -- virtually render -- the actual experience of battle. It’s war as theme park -- or as Jurassic Park. Big ideas and romantic distractions may decorate their chassis, but the aesthetic that drives these films, Band of Brothers included, is essentially tech-headed, materiel-obsessed and turned on by things that blow up and burn.
The pop-cultural shrapnel of the Second World War was also especially present in the days of my youth, which are approximately those of Hanks, and nearly of Spielberg. Growing up then it was easily possible, if you watched TV at all, to know more about World War II, its superficial outlines and social trivia in any case, than about the war in Vietnam, which was actually going on. (Korea didn‘t register until M*A*S*H.) There were Combat and Rat Patrol and McHale’s Navy and the prison-camp comedy Hogan‘s Heroes (now showing on TVLand, should you care to make its acquaintance), and countless reruns of wartime and war-themed films, dramas and comedies and musicals, on the Early and the Late Shows. When kids played army, it was the army that fought Hitler and Hirohito; we knew what PT boats did, what a Luger was.
It was, I am not the first person to notice, the last military action of which an American could be uncontroversially proud -- in no small part, of course, because we won -- which is one reason it remains such a viable, popular subject. (That and the guns and the bombs.) The unassailable Rightness of the Cause -- putting aside any Allied complicity in the rise of fascism -- allows for a kind of blank-check righteousness few other ”serious“ subjects afford. There is, indeed, a sense here that the men of Easy Company are beyond criticism; the theme of the series is essentially These guys are great -- ”the toughest, most professional, most dedicated sons of bitches in the ETO,“ as someone says. Even when they’re shown doing ”bad things,“ like looting, or shooting enemy soldiers who are attempting to surrender, or otherwise taking the law into their own hands -- or when it is intimated, oh so briefly, that anti-Semitism might not be exclusive to the Nazis -- they are let off, dramatically speaking, with the merest rap on the knuckles, and having dutifully pointed a finger the film moves quickly on to the more important business of canonization.
This is not, I should say, a project I would be constitutionally predisposed to like. Spielberg‘s work often seems to me a case of astonishing technique in the service of simplistic ideas (though they are demonstrably powerful in a populist way). Hanks, who directed one episode of the miniseries and co-wrote another, has through the happenstance of casting come to stand in an unsettling way for the American ideal, and has distressingly lent his hand and heft to the rape of the Washington Mall by the forthcoming memorial to the veterans of WWII. Saving Private Ryan seemed to me on the whole a lot of sound and fury signifying a lot of sound and fury, apart from when it was merely cloying -- which is not to say it wasn’t compulsively watchable. Band of Brothers is erected on Ryan‘s foundation: It was shot at the same thousand-acre facility, the former Hatfield Aerodrome in Hertfordshire; its cast was sent to ”boot camp“ with the same retired Marine captain; the theatrical film and the TV movie share a desaturated image and ”documentary“-style camerawork; both employ something called the ”image shaker“ for explosion shots, and fast shutter speeds in battle scenes for a preternaturally crisp, slightly stroboscopic look, a look that in short order has come to stand for the hyperclarity and temporal distortions of a hectic, life-threatening situation. (It was used in Gladiator, too.) As in most movies, the principals are perhaps a shade too handsome; the dialogue occasionally sounds recycled (”They were good men“); the camerawork muscles us toward an emotion we should be allowed to find (or discard) on our own; and the music kills the mood: Michael Kamen’s elegiac score, though fairly restrained, and darn catchy, is never less than intrusive. And there is finally the obligatory HBO good-looking naked girl (this must be contractual), which feels obligatory, and disappointing.
Nevertheless, I come to praise, not to bury. I hung in for the duration. Some of it was sheer admiration for the film craft -- the $120 million is definitely on the screen -- not just for the ”patina of authenticity“ Hanks has said they were trying to achieve, and do, but for special effects that, falling inevitably short of real, opt for poetry: the air filled with planes and chutes and flak, for instance, all arranged to be as beautiful, in a painterly way, as it is frightening. In an old airplane hangar, they built a forest and filled it with a third of a million pounds of utterly persuasive fake snow. It is a convincing forest, full of convincing forest mist and forest light, and yet it is also a fairy tale forest, full of fairy tale mist and fairy tale light. At the same time, the series feels more real, more honest than Saving Private Ryan, if only because when soldiers are killed, it isn‘t to make a narrative or philosophical or even emotional point, but because that’s really what happened to them. The series has a satisfying arc, if not what you‘d call a story, and it’s pleasurable, if that‘s the right word, to watch the characters, if that’s the right word, differentiate and grow, if that‘s the right word. It scores points as well for expressions of tenderness between men -- weird and rare on television. I was also happy to see Ron Livingston, a favorite actor from the small screen (Townies) and big (Office Space), in a large role. British actor Damian Lewis is Lieutenant Richard Winters, on whose humble, strong shoulders the series is more or less hung, and he is very good, and plausibly American. David Schwimmer, the cast’s biggest name, no kidding, plays against type -- which is to say, plays against practically the only character anyone has seen him play, but which everyone has seen him play -- as an unlikable martinet, and he is indeed unlikable.
And, when it comes right down to it, I am as fascinated as anyone by the unattainable past, and as keen as you and you and you to see it re-created. Let me in that theme park! The ride provided here is tense and terrifying, and perversely thrilling -- the destruction of the Ardennes forest is as mind-bendingly gripping as anything I‘ve ever seen come out of my TV. The film, though it celebrates the warrior, is so violent and bloody as to be implicitly anti-war: Certainly it makes clear just how primitive a business wars are, or used to be before we invented robots to fight them, and how much the outcome of this particular war came down to a matter of who had more meat to throw into the grinder. Band of Brothers is the next best thing to being there -- well, better, obviously.
© Robert Lloyd 2001 and 2011