When the US Marines roll out the artillery onto the shores of Guadalcanal it’s hard not to be reminded that our TV networks are unleashing their firepower at one another, with the return of official ratings. This theatre of war is a fight for our imagination and victory must be won at all costs.
The Pacific is a series we have waited years to see. Since Seven first announced it was joining HBO’s campaign back in 2007, we have been promised a television spectacle. It has been held on high as a knight in shining fatigues. With names like Spielberg and Hanks and a budget of $200m, we have been told this is just about as big as it gets.
After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, America turns its attention to the South Pacific and to the march by the enemy towards Australia. US Marines sign up in droves to defend their country and are shipped off to miniscule islands they have never heard of. Each episode of The Pacific opens with Tom Hanks’ narration over vintage footage and interviews with surviving veterans. One old soldier recalls his troops couldn’t even pronounce Guadalcanal let alone know anything of what lay in store.
The documentary inclusions before the opening credits add much resonance to this tale, based in part on books by Robert Leckie, Eugene B. Sledge, Chuck Tatum and interviews with survivors.
The canvas to The Pacific is vast. The first two hours, which will comprise the Australian premiere, are based on battle scenes at Guadalcanal, filmed in Port Douglas. The third hour is filmed and set in Melbourne.
At the core of the story are three soldiers: PFC Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) a machine gunner and intelligence scout, PFC Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), and gunnery sergeant John Basilone (Jon Seda). They personify a cynical New Jersey boy, a sensitive young man from Alabama and an Alpha-male ready to prove his mettle.
Much of the first hour establishes how unprepared the central characters were for what lay ahead. It is a long haul by boat from America’s West Coast to the islands off the Solomons. The huge flotilla of US warships and overhead planes reaching the shores of Guadalcanal quickly shifts from a gung-ho mood to one of anti-climax. There is no enemy to meet them. But conquering the Japanese would not be achieved with the same tactics as fighting Hitler on the continent.
The Pacific perfectly pitches between an elusive, distant enemy somewhere in the jungle to surprise attacks unforgiving in their gore. The fear of never knowing when an attack will occur is palpable. But the naivety of young soldiers is contrasted by brutal sacrifice. Like a small-screen Saving Private Ryan, the action sequences are cinematic and at times, relentless. Authentic brutality and a mounting body count will not be to everybody’s liking.
The Pacific is at its strongest when it aims at the humanity in us, rather than its epic battle scenes. One scene involving malevolent torture of a Japanese soldier was particularly stark, echoed by the discovery of a photo of a Japanese soldier’s family. The unrelenting red-white and blue of the series is very possibly its biggest shortcoming -but it is a minor one.
The performances by the three male leads, especially James Badge Dale, are outstanding. Australian actors, including Tom Budge and a cameo by Chris Haywood, can be seen in the first episode. Others will follow in episode three including Claire Van der Boom, Zoe Carides and the obligatory cameo by Bill Hunter (it’s an Aussie period piece after all). The score by Hans Zimmer, Geoff Zanelli and Blake Neely is suitably stirring. Cinematography by Remi Adefarasin and Stephen F. Windon captures weary soldiers on a lush tropical, template.
As entertainment, The Pacific is a masterful work, epic in ambition and execution, but I suspect one which will be significantly impacted from mood-breaking commercials more than most television. While the period miniseries is at risk of becoming something of an antique in itself, this remains one to be savoured. Don’t miss it.
The Pacific premieres 8:30pm Wednesday April 14 on Seven.