Tuned In: The Pacific, HBO premieres 10-part World War II miniseries

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HBO's latest World War II epic, "The Pacific," arrives in the shadow of the network's much-admired 2001 WWII miniseries "Band of Brothers," and there will be inevitable comparisons.

If you're a fan of nuanced, character-driven story-telling, there's no question "The Pacific" is the superior effort.

This 10-hour production is often difficult to watch as it depicts brutal, inhumane wartime conditions -- a Japanese mother, trying to give her child to American soldiers, gets blown into bloody bits during a battle on Okinawa -- that cause physical and mental damage to the participants.

Credit producers for recognizing that an unrelenting diet of Pacific theater fighting might send even the nerviest viewers fleeing for less tension-filled fare. To avoid that, "The Pacific" changes up its tone some weeks and spends more time out-of-combat (on the American home front, in Australia for shore leave) than "Band of Brothers" did. This approach dovetails with the film's intent to concentrate primarily on three characters rather than an entire squad, giving "The Pacific" more focus.

There are dozens of peripheral characters as well as the usual war movie difficulty of distinguishing among corpsmen when they're clad in the same grime-caked uniforms, but it's always clear that "The Pacific" is most interested in three Marines: Pfc. Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale, "24"), Sgt. John Basilone (Jon Seda, "Homicide: Life on the Street") and Pfc. Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello, "Jurassic Park").

Leckie is a writer who joins the war effort without much of a goodbye from his emotionally constipated, middle-class family.

Basilone gets a grand send-off from his large, loving New Jersey clan and goes on to fame as a hero who becomes the face of U.S. war bonds.

Sledge, who is introduced in tonight's premiere but largely disappears until the miniseries' mid-point, becomes the heart and soul of the story as he journeys from innocent boy to a hardened man haunted by the horrors he witnesses.

The three actors turn in performances as varied as their characters. Dale's soulful Leckie is somewhat taciturn; Seda's Basilone has a hint of the actor's naturally cocky swagger, and Mazzello's Sledge is the determined-but-terrified newcomer, a sweet-natured boy from an upper-crust family who grows tough and distant.

If anyone is bound to get a career boost from "The Pacific," it's Mazzello who's chosen the perfect role to transition from a child actor remembered for playing the little boy in "Jurassic Park" to an adult who will star later this year in "The Social Network," a movie about the founding of Facebook.

Co-executive producer Bruce C. McKenna, who previously wrote episodes of "Band of Brothers," gets a screenplay credit on seven of the 10 hours of "The Pacific," so it seems likely he's as deserving of praise as executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg for shepherding this epic into existence.

The war in the Pacific seems less well known today and certainly less romanticized than the war in Europe with fewer touchstone moments that require reproduction (the Marine landing on Iwo Jima is included, but the flag-raising moment is not). That might have freed producers to chart their own course, one that shines a light on a smaller group of characters who viewers are likely to bond with over the next 10 weeks.


TV editor Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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