There are a couple of things that make it difficult to clearly assess Band of Brothers, the 10-hour World War II miniseries based on Stephen E. Ambrose’s best-selling nonfiction book. First, it arrives at a time when a unique combination of scholarship, nostalgia, patriotism, and baby-boomer guilt over never having served in a ”good war” has resulted in pop-culture WWII overload. There’s the mass consumption not only of Ambrose’s various histories of the period (I won’t pretend to have read them, but am willing to believe the extensive critical opinion that they are solid works) but also Saving Private Ryan (directed by Steven Spielberg, executive producer of Band of Brothers along with Tom Hanks), plus Tom Brokaw’s multiple variations on his Greatest Generation best-sellers. Brokaw’s title conveys the agenda: There was a generation inspired to greatness and you weren’t a part of it, Mr. Disposable Income, Age 18 to 46. So buy these books and you’ll at least know who your betters were. Combining genuine respect for legitimate heroes with commercial enterprise is an inevitably compromised exercise, and as the product piles up, it becomes increasingly hard to look at any new examination of the subject with a fresh eye.
Second, Band of Brothers is literally difficult to see: Many of its 10 episodes feature nighttime battles in which the faces of the protagonists – the men of Easy Company, the 506th Regiment of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division – are smeared with grime and camouflage greasepaint. Given that the most familiar actor in the entire regiment may be Donnie Wahlberg (playing a grunt with a sly grin), it’s pretty difficult to get engrossed in the regiment’s fightin’ forays into Belgium, Holland, France, and Germany when you’re squinting at the screen saying ”Who said that?” and ”Who just got shot?”
As if daring you to embark on Band, the opening installment (on Sept. 9) focuses primarily on the series’ least sympathetic character, a pompous fool of a lieutenant, played by Friends’ David Schwimmer, who gives a fearlessly unappealing performance (it takes genuine talent to do that). Schwimmer’s Lieutenant Sobel inadvertently manages to unite the young recruits, who band as brothers initially to get Sobel off their backs. As Band proceeds, its true leaders emerge: the quiet, intelligent Lieutenant Winters, played with a perfect American accent and attitude by English actor Damian Lewis, and his closest combat buddy, Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston of director Mike Judge’s 1999 cult movie, Office Space), who drinks a bit too much but can be trusted to cover anyone’s back in a battle.
Episode directors range from David Nutter (The X-Files and the upcoming Smallville) for the fourth segment to Hanks himself on the fifth. Spreading out the assignments results in wildly different tones. There’s hokey poignancy in part 3, directed by Mikael Salomon: In a scene in which a soldier (Scott Grimes) picks up his clothes from a French laundress, she asks him to take back some unclaimed loads, and he slowly (and we immediately, recognizing a blast of incoming melodrama) realizes these garments belong to men who’ve died.
Spielberg and Hanks attempt an admirable fusion: They want to combine the documentary-style realism that made Private Ryan so compelling (using the freedom of HBO to show the atrocious gore of war), while also invoking the vivid male-bonding camaraderie of older WWII films like John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945) and Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980). The result is an inevitable artistic hodgepodge: a $125 million project whose realism depends on conveying confusion, yet whose drama requires that we identify with precisely delineated protagonists. Often, these objectives cancel each other out.
Stick with Brothers, however, and slowly, the characters played by Wahlberg, Lewis, and Livingston take on full-bodied resonance. While SNL’s Jimmy Fallon gets lost in the crowd during a cameo in hour 5, Colin Hanks (Roswell) acquits himself extremely well as a baby-faced West Point grad thrown into combat in hour 8. In the seventh hour, entitled ”The Breaking Point,” director David Frankel has the visual advantage of shooting the sooty soldiers against stark white snow, and writer Graham Yost (Speed) gives Wahlberg an excellent voice-over narration about the paratroopers’ exhaustion and fear. It’s at moments like these that Band of Brothers rises above the current pervasiveness of its subject to take on the gravity of reconstructed history as art.