Band of Brothers
Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”
This series has been described as a ten-hour version of "Saving Private Ryan" (I'm sure it was pitched to HBO that way), but that's an inaccurate oversimplification. It covers WWII from Normandy on, and the cinematography and action scenes are intentionally similar, and its heroic soldiers symbolically represent all GIs from the war, but the similarities end there. The biggest improvement is that "Band of Brothers" deals with real soldiers, and is intensely authentic. For every rough edge they leave in because that's the way it really happened, they reap tremendous rewards when it comes to showing the true great accomplishments of this one company: Dropping behind enemy lines in D-Day, participating in Market-Garden in Holland, fighting the Battle of the Bulge, liberating Dachau, and capturing Hitler's Eagle's Nest. Having the participation of the real soldiers, especially in a one-hour documentary on the bonus disc, reminds us that this isn't just some Hollywood fantasy in which we thrill at heroic achievements; this is a true story about men who gave their lives and limbs to defend the world. All soldiers fighting for just causes deserve respect, but surely the soldiers of the 101st Airborne are among the most accomplished in modern history.
It takes time for the individual men to stand out, since many look alike and their names are not spoken often, but by the end of ten hours nearly every one of them can be recognized for his individual personality and accomplishments. We spend eight months in their lives (plus scenes from two years of training), know how most of them regard the others, see the experiences that bond them. Like many such series, each episode focuses on one character in particular, but there's still plenty of attention paid to other soldiers like Guarnere and Luz who never get a starring role. The only two real villains of the series, Sobel and Dike, are eliminated in one episode each, leaving the weather and the war as the proper antagonists; this film doesn't go searching for dramatic personal conflicts between the men just to craft a better story. (It still escapes me why Sobel was such a bad guy, not counting his field incompetence. When he was mean to the trainees, that was his job; his function was to teach them how to hate.)
How HBO decided to spend $125 million on a ten-episode TV series I do not know, but I'm glad they did it; the money is apparent on screen. That I know such amazing sequences as the crowded, fiery skies above Normandy are mostly computer-animated does not detract from their awe. The most harrowing sequence, enduring the artillery fire in the Battle of the Bulge with almost no cover, is among the most terrifying visions of Hell I have ever seen on a screen. Though the early action sequences lack the fascination of the later ones because we are not yet familiar with the men, they are at least intense spectacles. It is difficult to imagine how this story could be told any bigger or truer than it has been told here.
If the series has a weakness besides taking too long to define these similar men as individuals, it is the sensation of running out of steam towards the end. After Bastogne and horrific artillery fire, the movie just doesn't seem to have the strength left to emphasize the later events. The concentration camp is not nearly as affecting as it should be: we viewers have seen the photographs of those emaciated Jews after being liberated, and the film seems content to recreate that superficial feeling of "gosh, how sad" instead of truly looking at the horror with open eyes like it could have; we barely even see any corpses. The final episode is so lazy as to convey the capturing of the Eagle Nest, the crown jewel in Hitler's empire, as a minor footnote, something the boys took care of almost as a lark. Perhaps if there was no combat involved, the series does not know how to communicate that the achievement was important? It's true the soldiers had experienced history overload by that point and just wanted to call it quits and go home, but there's no reason why the episode has to match their ambivalent feeling of time being wasted. It's a weak denouement to an excellent series.
Worth special mention is the DVD package, which is so vitally informative as to make you wonder how someone could have followed along with the series on television. The "Field Guide Manual" breaks down every soldier with a name and face, allowing you to leave the action when confused and look someone up, and the maps, glossary, and historical timeline are all exceptionally elucidative; the series was so much richer for having them. The segments on the bonus disc are annoyingly over-edited but do provide a wealth of behind-the-scenes information, especially about the ten-day boot camp that the actors endured. Rent the series and progress through it steadily, so as to take full advantage of the bonus materials along the way and give the story context. It is a phenomenal miniseries, a ten-hour epic of American heroism, told with great pains to authenticity; I cannot imagine any adult viewer not being enriched by having seen this film.