Books: Play All — Actors Airborne |
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Actors Airborne

THE NATURAL MODUS OPERANDI of the bingewatcher, having selected Play All in order to view a whole bunch of episodes on a disc, is to skip through the standard opening title sequence on each episode, especially when watching a show for the second or third time. But for at least two shows I have never done this, and have always watched the title sequence right through. One is The Sopranos, where the opening music—a piece of British rock and roll, oddly enough—is perpetually renewable in its pulse and color. The cutting from skyline to skyline of the drive through New Jersey seems part of the score, and you get to know its every bar so well that you know exactly where the twin towers should have been when they disappeared after the 9/11 disaster. The other is Band of Brothers. The opening sequence is so authoritative that Lucinda and I watch the whole thing every time. We are agreed that the way the stills and slo-mo clips are matched to the music couldn’t be improved, and that the music is uncannily beautiful. Thus the range of tragic lyricism in which the young men, the airborne brothers in arms, will risk their lives together in combat, and some will die and some will not, is established at the start of each episode. For my generation, who were infants when our fathers left us behind at home and went away to fight, this pictured music, or musical picture, is intensely recognizable, as deeply serious as something so aesthetically satisfactory could be. But I was surprised to find that Lucinda felt the same. Her knowledge of World War II is all from books—Anthony Beevor’s book The Battle of Stalingrad was her idea of a birthday present—but it is detailed and nuanced, and her standards of authenticity are high. It was from her reaction, not my own, that I reached a proper measure of the show’s success in transmitting, without dilution or trivialization, the texture of the past into the future.

The boot-camp episode that opens the series is the basis of the show’s monumental moral scope. Somewhere in the United States the members of Easy company are still safe from death, but they are at the mercy of their commanding officer, the madly authoritarian Lieutenant Herbert M. Sobel, disturbingly played—against the comfortable expectations he brings from his role in Friends—by David Schwimmer. Sobel is a Jew, so the first few episodes, during which Easy company learns to march, run, and jump before being transferred to England and prepared for its baptism of fire, are devoted to showing how the boys suffer from the sadistic whims of the detestable Jewish guy until they are saved by the unflinching integrity of the admirable WASP guy Sergeant (later Lieutenant, and finally Major) Richard Winters, played by Damian Lewis, a British actor with a convincing American accent. (Like Dominic West, who plays in The Wire, Lewis was educated at Eton, but the days are happily long gone when British actors couldn’t throw their voices across the Atlantic: it’s not because so many of them are now more adaptable, it’s because so many of them are now more talented.) The company’s justified collective loathing for Sobel is put into perspective as the show winds toward the last of its ten episodes, when the company stumbles on a concentration camp and finds out at first hand what anti-Semitic prejudice has come to under the shield of Nazi power. Stephen Spielberg, coproducer of the show along with Tom Hanks, must be given credit for this range of treatment of a topic close to his heart. It was Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List that did most to get the look of the thing on screen within a decently respectful distance of what the original horrors must have been like. But Schindler’s List, which is about how some were saved, has an element of wish fulfillment—Primo Levi would have said that the disaster was the story of those who were not saved—that Band of Brothers avoids.

In fact, Band of Brothers avoids nearly all the perennial Hollywood clichés, including those that linger even in its immediate progenitor Saving Private Ryan, the movie which set our current standards for a convincing battle scene. The story of how the last of Mrs. Ryan’s sons gets brought back alive is a Saturday Evening Post story plus extras. Some of the extras are superb—try watching the climactic scenes in the village without becoming a fan of Edith Piaf—but the final effect is of a consolatory neatness. In Band of Brothers Hanks and his chief collaborator Erik Jendresen, with Spielberg signing off on the 120 million dollars of production costs (the show got back a quarter of a billion dollars from its DVD releases alone, but show business is a business: if you could be dead certain, going in, of getting a hit, everybody would be doing it), keep the consolation strictly limited, while increasing the range of incident into a whole new dimension. Take the Private Ryan care for texture and apply it over an area that compares for size like the Sistine ceiling to the Mona Lisa, and you’ve got the scope of Band of Brothers, which is big even when it is stuck in the back of a truck with the abrasive Bill Guarnere (Frank John Hughes) finally accepting that Winters might be a good fighting leader after all. It is big even when Malarkey (Scott Grimes), having returned to England after the carnage of the first drop in Normandy, picks up the laundry parcels for the boys who won’t be coming back. It is big even when the exhausted medic Eugene Roe (Shane Taylor) gets back to the bombed ruins of Bastogne, looks for the nurse (Lucie Jeanne) whose merciful example he and we have come to depend on, and finds her gone. Her mere absence, registered in a few shots, has as much impact as the grand total of all the long battle scenes set in the Hürtgen forest.

By these means Band of Brothers helped to establish a ground rule for the long-form TV serial: that the range of emotional effect trumps spectacle. The night sequence where the planes arrive over Normandy and are chewed up by the flak, and some of the young men die even before they have gone into action, is hellishly well done: the CGI effects are almost up there with the authentic footage used in the Iwo Jima invasion sequence in The Halls of Montezuma all those decades ago. But the sequence in which the nurse simply fails to appear has an effect at least equal to it. And the effect is achieved by a lavishness that goes beyond an outpouring of budget; it is achieved by a lavishness of writing. Care has been taken. The true wealth of the box set always begins in the writer’s room, where the cards that bear the names of the scenes and sequences are shifted around and further annotated until the episode reveals the nervous system from which it will expand into a living fiction: that is, into a manageable reality.

For convenience we can, and perhaps should, go on calling Spielberg and Hanks the auteurs of the show. But its writing, and its whole batch of directors, are enough to prove that the old idea of a single auteur setting the tone is as irrecoverably gone as the idea of a single-authored comedy show. That idea vanished long ago, when it was realized that Sid Caesar, more sketch comedian than stand-up, needed ideas from Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen and half a dozen others if he was to keep to his weekly schedule. The development of the big TV fiction series in recent times can be said to be measurable by the extent that drama adopted the working methods of comedy. The laughs were turned off but the communal effort was stepped up. Nevertheless, there are few writing teams without crucial figures, and Stephen Ambrose can be called a crucial figure in the gigantic effort that produced Band of Brothers. In all his books about the European War—Citizens’ Army is particularly fine—he is keen to find an explanatory linear theme. For the theme of Easy Company’s advance from its Georgia training camp to Berchtesgaden, the linear theme was given to him on a plate, but he deserves the principal initial credit for making the most of it. Ever since Hollywood started to put the classic myths and stories through the mincer to determine their essential elements, the select band who, guided by an all-wise commander, fight their way to the great prize had been a standard plotline. Go back as far as A Walk in the Sun and you still probably haven’t gone back far enough, while if you go forward from there you will pass dozens of questing warrior bands before you eventually collapse with boredom among The Wild Geese and Force Ten from Navarone. Even The Eagle Has Landed is a quest movie: the boys aren’t going to Berchtesgaden (Michael Caine, though playing a German officer, can’t even say Berchtesgaden), but they are going in search of Churchill’s scalp. You could even say that the formative ancestor of Band of Brothers was not Saving Private Ryan but that scuzzy old monster of a movie The Dirty Dozen, which was likewise made largely in England (at Borehamwood), gathered together an elite military force chosen from material as yet untouched by discipline (criminals, in fact), and sent it, under the command of Lee Marvin, in search of a radiant objective (a castle full of high-ranking German extras). (One further, but necessary, parenthesis: as a Marine on Saipan, Lee Marvin had two bullets put through him, an experience which made him a sour judge of Hollywood militaristic hokum. But an actor has to act.) In Band of Brothers the grail may be Göring’s cache of fine wines, but the quest to reach it has every knightly virtue.

These virtues emanate from the characters: ordinary citizens temporarily in uniform, but up there like Arthur, Lancelot, and Galahad. It sounds simple, even hackneyed; but so do most of the classic plots (think of how often you have seen The Terminator under another title—even the heroine of a dud like Hanna might as well have been played by Arnie in a skirt), and structural analysis, like structuralism in general, is rarely informative about the only artistic parameter that matters, which is quality. The simple outline of Band of Brothers is the framework for a lavish range of nuance. The reason, while you are watching it, that you spend no time being struck by the similarity to a thousand plots is that you are continually being struck by subplots that are subtle like nothing else you have ever seen. My favorite example would be the way the preliminary scene to the concentration camp revelation links up with what comes next in a completely unpredictable yet entirely satisfactory way. Our intelligence officer, Captain Lewis Nixon (engagingly played by Ron Livingston as a smart, witty alcoholic), is caught by a German officer’s widow (Suzanne Roquette) trespassing in her house. Nixon accidentally drops and breaks a framed photograph of her husband. Nixon looks ashamed, as if conceding that her accusatory stare is justified, and that he is indeed intruding, like a looter. Later in the episode, after the concentration camp is discovered, all the local Germans are brought to see it, and to help shift and stack the emaciated bodies. Nixon, watching them do this, sees the German officer’s widow. She catches him watching: her turn to look ashamed, but of something much larger and more real. Whether the discrepancy between Nixon’s transgression and Nazi Germany’s universal atrocity is dawning on her, or whether she will ever come to admit it, we just don’t know: and as so often happens when it comes to subtlety, our not knowing is a mark of the authenticity. This linkage, the pathos, and the silent suggestion are all done with glances. A classic example of construction outranking dialogue, it can be fairly called a great piece of purely cinematic writing, and would not be less so if we could prove that the German officer’s wife was borrowed from the Marlene Dietrich character in Judgment at Nuremberg. We can’t ask screenwriters not to have seen movies: it’s how they learn to write. We can only ask them not to forget historical reality, and to be loyal to the truth: it’s how they learn to think.

A plenitude of such thoughtful effects makes Band of Brothers almost too successful to pick apart. To see why it is so subtly integrated, so resonant in its networks of suggestion—regard again the sharpness of the event when Sobel, near the end, doesn’t salute Winters—you have to look at its unsuccessful sequel The Pacific, which is such a mess that all its components are sticking out so that you can see how they failed to join up. Perhaps Spielberg and Hanks were on a mission: they had wrapped up the war in Europe, now for the war in the Pacific. Speaking as someone whose family history was deeply affected by the war in the Pacific, I looked forward to what Spielberg and Hanks would do with the story, but it was evident from halfway into the first episode that they would not be able to do enough. The war in the Pacific had no holy grail that could be reached except in the form of the instrument of surrender that was eventually signed on the deck of the battleship Missouri in Tokyo bay. The war’s main narrative line—the island-hopping campaign that brought the B-29s close enough to Japan so that they could stage the decisive bombing raids culminating in the use of the nuclear weapons—was inherently a story that progressed without ever taking shape, and this shapelessness is reflected all too well by the structure of the show, which is scattered over too many islands. Nevertheless, some order might have been imposed if a band of brothers could have been sent on a specific quest, even at the risk of echoing The Naked and the Dead. Norman Mailer confined his novel to the fictional island of Anopopei, and managed to cram a whole American social system into his frame. But the makers of The Pacific were true, too true, to the incoherence of their material. The leading characters, played by actors whom we tend not to remember because nobody who watched cared, are seldom in touch with one another, and there is no Nixon figure—a crucial omission, this—to give them the big picture. When they go on leave, it is to an Australia whose denizens are so prone to cliché that they might make an older viewer yearn for the comparative subtlety of the New Zealand pictured in the old movie Battle Cry, in which Van Heflin furrowed his brow and flexed his jaw in a military manner (he could do both those things at once) but at least the Kiwi girls had a few scraps of dialogue with which to set the Yank boys dreaming.

In The Pacific the Australian haven provides even fewer memorable scenes than the islands which the Yank boys invade in order to blast bunch after bunch of Japanese extras out of the jungle. Out they come running, spin around and fall down, as they have been doing ever since John Wayne pointed his prop gun at them in The Sands of Iwo Jima. Hour after hour, we seem to be watching the kind of old movie whose trite production values Spielberg was sent into the world to rescue us from. He did The War of the Worlds better than he did this. Even his epic comedy 1941 was better; and the only other thing that 1941 was better than was the nineteenth-century Irish potato famine. Even Clint Eastwood’s two movies about Iwo Jima—a binational project that adds up to Tora! Tora! Tora! plus tunnels—look fresh when compared with the weary scenarios of The Pacific. All the amphtracks look real, but the troops who come splashing out of them have nothing real to say or do. At times the script sounds barely filmable, making you wonder how Hanks, of all people, could have okayed the project: the one thing any long-term star actor is sure to know is whether a script is ready for the cameras. The scripts of The Pacific were ready only for the bin. But the whole megabudget stretch of unleavened bread can tell you a lot about its successful predecessor: The Pacific, by what it doesn’t have, is a testimony to what Band of Brothers has. The crucial ingredient is not realism of effect—a few hundred million dollars will buy you some of that—but a sense of complex reality. Watching The Pacific is like being shackled to the couch and forced to see Pearl Harbor for a second time. It almost makes you sorry that the Japanese lost. But there is no need to press the point, because The Pacific was forgotten instantly. It might have been forgotten even had it been better done. The series Over There was brilliantly conceived and should have made more impact than it did, but it was hampered by the distancing effect a war story tends to have when the enemy is nothing like us. The Arab opponents might as well have been Transformers. The Pacific had the same problem. In Band of Brothers, the opponent is us gone wrong, and we ourselves are at our best.