What is it good for?

Band of Brothers
HBO, Sundays Sept. 9-Oct. 28, 9 p.m.

We're at a point now where we've seen nearly every kind of war film, and seen how they all tend to fall into one of two types: The false, sappy, flag-waving variety that glosses over the horrors of combat (a tack that's unfashionable and thus rarely employed anymore), and the more contemporary critical, somewhat cynical kind, which portrays war as dirty, miserable, perplexing, cruel, and ultimately tragic (a perspective that's de rigueur if the movie is about, say, Vietnam). Maybe I'm oversimplifying, but the war movie's future seems to be a synthesis of these two styles: films that are patriotic and affecting but also harrowing, bloody, and punishingly graphic.

Steven Spielberg's 1998 opus Saving Private Ryan embodies this stylistic fusion, so it's really no surprise that Ryan's director (Spielberg) and star (Tom Hanks) have teamed up to executive produce a series for HBO that continues in this vein. Band of Brothers is a 10-part miniseries (roughly the equivalent of an entire season of a regular HBO series), based on a 1992 book by historian Stephen Ambrose, about an elite squad of U.S. Army paratroopers that fought in World War II. For his book, Ambrose interviewed the surviving veterans of Easy Company in the late 1980s. Some of these same veterans briefly introduce each episode of the TV series with their recollections and comments, a device that both orients the viewer and makes the story more vivid.

The series follows Easy Company's training in Georgia in 1942, through the soldiers' entry into combat on D-Day (where they were dropped behind enemy lines at Normandy), through the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, continuing with the liberation of a portion of the Dachau concentration camp, finally winding up with the capture of Hitler's Bavarian retreat, Eagle's Nest. The casualty rate within this particular unit — replacements were shipped in as men died — was notoriously high.

The two episodes of Band of Brothers that were available for preview introduce the volunteers of Easy Company during their time in boot camp, where the group prepares for paratrooping, a combat tactic first used during World War II. Many of the men were enticed to volunteer for this mission, we're told, because the pay was better than the average enlistment job. The unit is presided over by shrill authoritarian Herbert Sobel (David Schwimmer), a hard-ass who favors severe punishment for even the most minor infractions. The men — who are practically interchangeable at this early point, not only because they're played by a cast of relative unknowns, but because character development is skimpy — all clearly hate him. That "Ross-from-Friends" thing Schwimmer has going on works for and against him: He's able to parlay the goofiness of his sitcom character into his portrayal of an inept commander, but the comic undertones that come with the package undermine the dramatic aspect of the performance.

Episode two dives right into the D-Day invasion with a visually stunning, involving dynamism that hopefully will continue throughout the series. The best thing Band of Brothers does is put the audience right where the soldiers are: lined up inside the belly of a plane, waiting for the signal to jump, while a constellation of gunfire and the strobe-flash of wailing, hissing explosions illuminate the murky dawn that seeps in around them. Band is dizzyingly shot — it looks as though the camera can't keep up with the movement going on in front of it and color trails trace the action, a distortion that adds to the sheer terror of the film's combat sequences. Muted color schemes tone down the otherwise unconcealed splatter.

Band's graphic nature might be predictable, given its Ryan connection, but it's still effective. (Each episode is interpreted by various writers and directors; Hanks wrote one — the first — and directed another.) The filmmakers make war seem appropriately awful, yet also make the combatants appear heroic (which, of course, they were). It's a clever way to present an unflinching portrait of war and, theoretically, should appease post-Vietnam cynics while still giving the "Greatest Generation" its due.

The miniseries may have a firm handle on sensual details — it adeptly captures how World War II probably looked, sounded, and felt — but so far there's a disturbing lack of examination of why Americans fought the Good War. One of the only reasons that the real-life talking heads of Easy Company give for enlisting is, simply put, because everyone else was doing it. Hard to swallow, considering the Axis powers' threat to the American way of life. Band of Brothers should have kicked off by providing viewers with a greater understanding about what was at stake, both philosophically and politically, for the United States in World War II. It's an omission that hampers the program's otherwise promising start. We need to know not only how Americans fought, but why.

Adele Marley writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to [email protected]
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