‘The Pacific’ – ‘Part Ten’: All tortured on the home front

Senior Television Writer
05.16.10 46 Comments

HBO/David James

A review of “The Pacific” finale coming up just as soon as I use a punch properly spiked…

“You just gotta pull yourself out of bed in the morning and get on with the day. You do that enough times in a row, you forget some things… for a while, anyway.” -Sid

And so we’ve come to the end of “The Pacific,” and to the close of the stories Leckie, Sledge and the Basilone family (with Basilone himself having fallen at Iwo Jima). And while Part Ten didn’t have the gore of Okinawa, or the intensity of Peleliu and Iwo Jima, or the oppressive quality of Cape Gloucester, it was still a powerful capstone to this great miniseries.

Like the comparable episode of “Band of Brothers” (which was set after the European war ended, but with Easy Company still stuck overseas), the tone is quieter and more emotional. The fighting’s done, and now everyone has to deal with a life beyond that.

Bruce McKenna said at one point he wanted to open the miniseries with footage of Wild Bill Guarnere saying that as rough as he had it, the boys in the Pacific had it much, much worse. The finished product brought that sentiment to life, and a version of the line was ultimately given to Leckie’s cab driver here, who notes that least he got to take liberty in Europe, where guys like Leckie got jungle rot. If he only knew how bad things really got for Bob – and how much worse they went for men like Sledge and Snafu.

Sledge, Leckie and Basilone were chosen as an easy way for McKenna and company to cover a good chunk of the ground war in the Pacific theater – Leckie and Basilone at Guadalcanal and in Australia, Leckie and Sledge on Peleliu, Basilone at Iwo Jima, Sledge on Okinawa – and because Sledge and Leckie had written such acclaimed combat memoirs (Sledge’s “With the Old Breed” and Leckie’s “A Helmet For My Pillow”), while Basilone’s life and death were at once very well-documented and yet conflicting. (The official record, for instance, says he died from an artillery round explosion, but researcher Hugh Ambrose has said he found multiple witnesses who saw Basilone get shot.)

But their intertwining stories also wind up giving us three very different portraits of what happened to the American men sent over to that side of the world. Leckie suffers a nervous breakdown on Pavuvu, but (in part because his injuries on Peleliu were severe enough to send him home much earlier than Sledge) he returns to the States largely intact, psychologically-speaking. Sledge (who went into the war with far less cynical eyes than Leckie) is plagued with nightmares, depression and a general sense that he has no place back in the civilized Western world. And Basilone doesn’t come home at all, instead leaving behind grieving parents and a widow who loved him so much that she never remarried, and kept a photo of her John in her purse until the day she died.

After being absent for the previous three episodes, James Badge Dale makes an effective, low-key return to the proceedings as Leckie, who’s mostly but not entirely okay with what he went through. Sure, he wins the heart of Vera (even though all the letters were ruined in the wet jungle) and gets his sportswriting job back. But there’s that moment at the beginning when he’s still in the hospital and word comes in of the Japanese surrender, and everyone who’s been taking care of the wounded vets runs outside to celebrate, leaving Leckie and his comrades – the men whose sacrifices helped secure that peace – alone. It’s uncomfortable and yet appropriate, for who could truly appreciate what happened over there (be it against the Germans or Japanese) than the other men who experienced it firsthand.

Along similar lines, Lena Basilone goes looking for the only other people on Earth who can feel what she’s been feeling about her fallen John: his parents and brother. Annie Parisse does some more strong work in the episode’s most obvious, if sincere, tear-jerking moments, standing in for her man, and for the other war widows, while at the same time still seeming very much her own woman.

But the finale, like the second half of the miniseries, largely belongs to Joseph Mazzello as Sledge. We were warned in the early episodes of the emotional trauma he would suffer, and his fate plays out as his father sadly predicted, with night terrors and a general feeling of dislocation. When he looks to enroll in school and is asked what sort of trade he learned in the Marines, his answer is as simple, straightforward and brutal as anything else he’s said over the last few hours:

“They taught me to kill Japs.,” he says. “I got pretty good at it.”

The thing is, though, that Sid Phillips’ advice ultimately proved useful. Sledge suffered nightmares, but he eventually was able to re-enter the world, getting a degree, a career and a family, and living a long and ultimately happy life. There isn’t time in the hour to see him get there, but Sid’s words outside the dance point the way.

Similarly, Snafu gets off the train – and can’t bring himself to say goodbye to the sleeping Sledgehammer – looking very little like the amoral tooth-stealer of Peleliu. As McKenna told me, “Snafu was not a sociopath when he got out of the war. He had a productive life and a family and was a good citizen.” And after “With the Old Breed” was published, he and Sledge reconnected to the point where Eugene served as a pallbearer at Snafu’s funeral.

None of them were able to forget what they witnessed, what they did or what they failed to do, and those who came back home understandably didn’t want to talk about any of it. But most of them found a way to get past it and build a life, whether as ambitious as Leckie the prolific author, or as simple as Runner going home to sell cars and start a family.

And after 65 years of Hollywood giving us variations on the war in Europe, McKenna, Yost, Hanks, Spielberg and company have given us 10 graphic, gripping, haunting hours of “The Pacific” to give us a sense of why so many were reluctant to show us this half of “the good war.”

Well done, gentlemen (both the Marines and the filmmakers). Well done, indeed.

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