The final episode of the HBO mini-series “The Pacific” will air on Sunday. I’ve watched it all the way through the last nine episodes, most of them twice. For me it’s been one of the most profoundly moving productions I’ve ever seen, and I’m a different person for the experience.
What’s changed is my perspective. I believe that great narrative cinema should draw you in, seduce you, pull you out of your limited perspective and challenge your assumptions. My viewpoint, like that of many Americans, is limited with respect to the sacrifices made to preserve our freedom. Historically so far removed from the events of World War II, all I have is book knowledge supplemented by documentaries, and that can bring you only so close to what really went down.
“The Pacific” is based on the memoirs of men who served in the Pacific arena, each of whom fought in multiple battles. I have two of these memoirs: “With the Old Breed” by E.B. Sledge, and “A Helmet for my Pillow” by Robert Leckie. Combined, they were witness to four of the bloodiest battles of the war– Peleliu, Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester and Okinawa.
Sledge and Leckie, who both died in 2001, were gifted writers and their memoirs are exceptional. What they captured in words is what “The Pacific” communicates in graphic, often horrific detail. You are watching the war through their eyes. Though film can provide only a hint of what really happened, it’s enough to convey that what these men experienced changed the whole of their being.
Beyond being well-written and skillfully produced, the true value of “The Pacific” is to bring us closer to what men like Sledge and Leckie had to endure and do in the worst imaginable conditions, fighting an enemy they didn’t understand, in a war with everything at stake. You can feel their disbelief as they witness atrocities no one could have imagined before being plunged into the war, and their confusion as they face wave after wave of a relentless enemy unafraid to die.
The feeling I’ve had while watching the mini-series is the same I had when I first walked through the WWII memorial in Washington. If you’ve been there, you already know what I mean. It’s a feeling that works through you and overtakes you, and for the time you are there you forget about the ups and downs of your life and focus on the massive sacrifice made in every battle of the war up to its bloody end. Standing among the memorial columns is humbling, knowing that you could never show enough gratitude to honor a sacrifice most of us rarely even think about.
I know some critics have said that it’s time for Hanks and Spielberg to move on from the War, but I can’t agree. The memorial in Washington wouldn’t have been built without their help, and cinematic memorials like “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” wouldn’t exist without their dedication to making sure we don’t forget what happened 65 years ago. If this is their artistic obsession, I understand it fully and applaud them for it. Yes, it’s also profitable, but so are mindless popcorn movies they could just as easily be making instead of choosing this path.
For me, “The Pacific” has had its intended effect. My perspective has changed, and my level of appreciation for the sacrifices made on those islands half a world away has grown. That’s the influence of powerful narrative in any form–it doesn’t let you leave the same person as when you arrived.