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Friday, March 19, 2010

The Televangelist: The War on TV

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  • "Hell was an ocean away"

War films can be fantastic and heart-wrenching, but they can sometimes seem like a dime a dozen.  A few recent experiments with reviving the miniseries to better delve into the depths of the wartime experience have, for me, changed my entire mental rendering of battle.  Films like "The Hurt Locker" or "Saving Private Ryan" can say a great deal in 100 minutes, but their stories can never be as complex as what is achieved in seven or ten hours of grueling battle and bonding among the troops.  HBO's WWII epic "The Pacific" launched last week as a companion series to "Band of Brothers," which focused on the European theater of battle.  That series, along with "Generation Kill," have been my prep for "The Pacific," and my recommendations for DVD viewing this week, although as a training camp it can more grueling than running up a mountain in the summer heat of Camp Toccoa, Georgia.

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Generation Kill

Production Team: David Simon and Ed Burns, from "The Wire"

Scope: Following the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion? of the United States Marine Corps during the 2003 invasion of Iraq

Commitment: 7 hour-long episodes

Reality Check: Based on a book written by embedded Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright, the characters, conversations, and situations are all from reality (in fact, some of the Marines on whom the characters are based appear in the show alongside the actors, or in DVD extras discussing the show).

Kill Count: Mid-range for the Insurgents, almost none for the American troops

Character Development: High.  By the end of the series you feel as if you were in the Humvees with Brad "Iceman" Colbert, Lt Fick, Cpl Ray Person,  and the others, which is great since the cast is definitely the most attractive platoon of men ever to fight a war.  And they are all men - though there are more minorities than in "Band of Brothers," there is not a single woman in the entire series on the American side.

Amount of War-Knowledge Necessary: Medium.  I watched the series with subtitles on, which helped me pick up what things like "Oscar Mike" meant, and the names of various weaponry.  However, as we all have lived through this war, it's easy and somewhat rewarding to pick up on throwaway lines to things happening back in America, and the lead-up to that disastrous "Mission Accomplished" banner.

Emotional Devastation: Medium.  Many of the same frustrations of characters from "The Wire" are on display here: the incompetence of missions, the lack of necessary knowledge by higher-ups, senseless death.  The last episode, when everybody has to say goodbye to each other, feels a little like that last day at summer camp ... if you happened to also shoot a lot of people while you were at camp.

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Band of Brothers

Production Team: Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, who also produced "The Pacific"

Scope: WWII, from training camp in 1942 Toccoa, Georgia through D-Day, The Battle of the Bulge, liberation, and Hitler's Eagle's Nest in 1945.

Commitment: 10 hour-long episodes

Reality Check: Based on the book Band of Brothers by historian and memoirist Stephen Ambrose.  Real veterans, unnamed, appear at the beginning of each episode and speak about their recollections of the war, which ties into the theme of the upcoming story arc.

Kill Count: High.  Graphic, violent, and emotional deaths on both sides.

Character Development: Medium.  With over 20 main characters who rotate in and out and can go episodes without speaking, it can be difficult to keep a count of who's who (even though, like in "Generation Kill," the platoon is populated with extremely attractive men).  A helpful "Field Guide" on the DVD menu matches faces and names, and backstories which are also left unexplained on the show (which I personally feel is the right choice).  Still, just as you get to know a guy ... he usually doesn't last long.  And that hurts.

Amount of War-Knowledge Necessary: Low.  Most of us are pretty familiar with the ends and outs of WWII.  Still, the Field Guide also provides helpful tactical maps, and a list of officers to understand rank.  The jargon used on the show is minimal - it did not have subtitles (!) and I got along fine.

Emotional Devastation: Maximum.  It's not recommended anyone watch more than two episodes at a time.  Even if you aren't crying during the episodes, the horror of what you just witnessed will stay with you, settling into your subconscious.  Every episode left me saying emphatically through shell-shocked eyes to anyone I could, "they really were the Greatest Generation!"  But it is a journey worth taking.

The first episode of "The Pacific" is available to watch in full at HBO.com

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