Twice now the cable channel and Tom Hanks have produced original miniseries that function as de facto spin-offs of the Oscar-winning actor's movies. Following the NASA disaster flick Apollo 13, HBO and Hanks presented From Earth to the Moon in 1998, a dry but impeccably researched 12-hour docu-drama about the history of the space program.
On Sept. 9, the channel debuts the first two parts of Band of Brothers, a 10-hour follow-up of sorts to Hanks' D-Day epic Saving Private Ryan. Based on Stephen Ambrose's nonfiction book of the same name, Band of Brothers follows the paratroopers of Easy Company from their harsh training in Georgia through their exploits across the European theater. The compelling first installments suggest that Band has spared no expense to provide a spectacle of enormous scope, making the little details precise and the big events, well, really big.
Each episode begins with a nod to "The Greatest Generation," offering interviews with actual veterans, filmed against black backgrounds like the witnesses in Reds. The first chapter, told mostly in flashback, offers a kind of history of the company from its training in 1942 to the eve of the Normandy invasion. Led by a control freak captain (played with fitting pettiness by David Schwimmer of "Friends," of all people), the men find themselves on the verge of a Caine Mutiny type of situation before even facing the Germans.
Band takes off -- both literally and figuratively -- in its second part, "Day of Days," which begins with the men parachuting over Normandy in the dark of night. With flack lighting up the sky and planes taking devastating hits, the sequence is as lavish as it is terrifying. Much of the rest of the episode has Easy Company taking out German artillery, and it's filmed in the Private Ryan style, with shaky, hand-held cameras, pale colors and sharp focus that captures all the flying dirt clods.
In Band of Brothers' early chapters, it's difficult to tell the troops apart, although the central character is Damian Lewis' upstanding Lt. Winters (whose occasional moments of voice-over narration tend to be hokey). In the first chapters, keeping up with the soldiers is mostly just a matter of gradually placing names to faces, but as the miniseries continues, they grow more familiar.
In maintaining its G.I.-eye view, Band of Brothers makes a sharp contrast to bygone network miniseries like The Winds of War, which tried to encompass WWII's global politics. Of course, the networks have all but abdicated making would-be "event" miniseries, leaving HBO to steal their thunder. And even HBO may not have been able to do justice to Band of Brothers without the participation of a Hollywood big gun, so its success is at least in part thanks to Hanks.