Compelling story of soldier heroes

'Band of Brothers' is television at its finest telling the story of Americans at their finest.

Television

September 09, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Band of Brothers, the HBO World War II saga from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, is the richest 10 hours of television I've experienced since Ken Burns' Jazz on PBS in January.

This is television taking us on a journey into shared memory and the national past. This is television near the top of its game as the Great American Storyteller telling us who we were at one of our finest hours and, so, reminding us of what can be.

Band of Brothers, with Part One and Part Two airing back to back tonight, is the story of Easy Company, part of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. The film, based on historian Stephen E. Ambrose's book, follows this group of young men from the rigors of training in Georgia in 1942 to the end of the war in Europe.

It's an incredible journey of determination, self-sacrifice, community, blood, brotherhood and death. From parachuting into France behind German lines on D-Day to capturing Hitler's mountain retreat, the Eagle's Nest, in Berchtesgaden in the final days on the European front, Easy Company, with replacements for lost men, suffered 150 percent casualties.

Reading about their heroic efforts in France, Holland and Germany is one thing. This epic film makes you feel some of the confusion and terror these young men must have felt at places like Bastogne where they withstood hunger, frostbite and severe casualties to "hold the line" despite an awe-inspiring pounding from German artillery. Hour Six, which tells the story of that bloody winter in the woods at Bastogne, resonates as an epic war narrative in the same rarefied air as Burns' Civil War, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The resonance of such moments is no accident. From the passion Ambrose, Spielberg and Hanks bring to the story of Easy Company to the $120 million HBO shelled out to do it right, this is an exemplary made-for-television series. The $120 million is the most HBO has ever spent on a production.

Emotionally gripping

Bits and pieces of everything that Spielberg, who along with Hanks serves as executive producer of the film, has learned in his career as an acclaimed filmmaker are on display. Each hour opens with survivors of the real Easy Company talking about the action we are about to see in the film. If you've seen Schindler's List, you know how emotionally powerful such moments can be in the hands of Spielberg.

The recollections of the real-life men of Easy Company start out feeling like the stuff of journalistic interviews in tonight's first hour, but by Part Two, they move into the more elevated realm of testimony and bearing witness. From the way the ex-soldiers are photographed to the pace of the editing of their words, they are made to remind viewers of the Holocaust survivors in Spielberg's Shoah Project of oral history. Both have seen the horror of humanity at its worst, and the camera is used to imbue them with such moral authority that even in these self-centered times of individualism and greed, we might stop for just a second and listen to what they've learned.

"If this was the 1920s, and we had in our neighborhoods -- living across the street from us -- human beings that had been witness to the Battle of Bull Run or Gettysburg, we would want to hear what they had gone through and what they had seen and what they had witnessed," Hanks said during a press conference in Los Angeles in July.

He was answering a question about using the real-life survivors to set the stage for each of the 10 parts, as well as commenting on the media's current celebration of men their age as "the greatest generation."

"I realize that a cottage industry seems to have sprung up here over the past few years, and that myself and my associate, Mr. Spielberg, are in some ways responsible for it with the motion picture we made [Saving Private Ryan]. I also realize that Mr. Brokaw's [NBC anchor Tom Brokaw] title of The Greatest Generation has become a snap judgment," Hanks said.

"But, if you return to the key years 1939 to 1945, you can honestly say that the fate of the world hung in the balance, and had the men of this generation not done what they did, the world would be a very, very palpably different place. We try to put that huge story into human terms so that it is not just some flickering black and white myth on some cable system late at night," he concluded.

From confusion to focus

Telling a story this large in human terms is the great challenge for the filmmakers, and they don't start out all that successfully. Tonight's first hour with the men in training is in some ways the most flawed of the 10. It is hard to distinguish one soldier from the others and get involved emotionally with any of them.

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