”THE PACIFIC” (Episode Five) Commentary
I wrote this commentary on the fifth episode of "THE PACIFIC":
Episode Five began with war hero John Basilone in the middle of a war bond drive with Hollywood actress, Virginia Grey. Everything seemed to be hunky-dory with the Marine. Many servicemen seemed recognize his face on sight. And the good sergeant is also enjoying more passionate moments with the actress. This brief scene into the life of Basilone also featured his reunion with his younger brother George, already a Marine sergeant. The younger Basilone tried to express hope that he would be able to live to the older sibling’s name and reputation. But John immediately warned him not to bother. The last thing Basilone wants is his younger brother getting killed in combat over some reckless attempt to live up to his reputation.
This episode also marked Eugene Sledge’s baptism of fire, as he join Robert Leckie and his other fellow Marines of the First Division land on Peleliu for a major assault in September 1944. Three months earlier, Sledge had arrived on Pavuvu, where he had a joyful reunion with his childhood buddy, Sid Phillips and engaged in a brief conversation with Leckie on the meaning of war. But the privations of Pavuvu proved to be minor for Sledge, when the First Marines land on the hellish beaches of Peleliu.
Around the same time Sledge arrived on Pavuvu, Leckie returned to How Company and enjoyed a happy reunion with his three buddies – Chuckler, Runner and Hoosier. In typical Leckie fashion, he kept silent about his experiences at the psych ward on Banika and his encounter with the mentally unstable Ronnie Gibson. But he did find the time for a brief conversation in which he expressed his slightly more cynical views on what the war really meant. Sledge’s expression seemed to hint a reluctance to consider Leckie’s view. Peleliu will end up providing a different lesson for the Mobile, Alabama native. As for Leckie, Peleliu – at least in this episode – provided both some pain and a great personal fear.
Producers Gary Goetzman, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks made it clear that the Battle of Peleliu (which was fought between September and November 1944) would be shown in three episodes. Episode Five featured the First Marines Division landing on the island. And director Carl Franklin did a superb job in conveying the horrors that Leckie, Sledge and their fellow Marines had experienced in landing on the island and establishing a beach hold. The most interesting aspect of that landing came from Sledge’s point-of-view, as the camera followed him from his boarding of the amtrack (amphibious tracked vehicles) to the fury of battle on the beach.
With Sledge finally experiencing combat for the first time, the miniseries introduced new characters - Merriell "SNAFU" Shelton (Rami Malek); Bill Leyden (Brendan Fletcher); R.V. Burgin (Martin McCann); and Captain Andrew "Ack Ack" Haldane (Scott Gibson). Burgin barely uttered a word in this episode. I cannot even remember Leyden’s face. And Haldane seemed to be an officer in the tradition of Richard Winters of ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. Shelton is another matter. Judging from the comments on the Web, I suspect that many viewers had been looking forward to experiencing Malek’s performance as Shelton, as much as seeing Sledge experience combat for the first time. And the actor did not fail to deliver. He gave a riveting, yet eccentric performance as the slightly soulless Shelton.
As I had stated earlier, Peleliu provided a great deal of pain and anxiety for Leckie. One, his breakdown in Episode Four led Hoosier to fret over him during the Peleliu landing – much to his annoyance. The two eventually got separated from Chuckler and Runner before disaster happened. Poor Hoosier became seriously wounded in the leg. Although Leckie managed to summon a medic, poor Hoosier lost consciousness before he was carried away. Both Leckie and the audience were left in a state of anxiety over the Marine’s fate. Leckie finally managed to hook up with Runner. Unfortunately, both men seemed to be at a loss over Chuckler, who has yet to make an appearance. And they, along with Sledge and the rest of the First Marines Division were poised to begin the assault on the airfield on Peleliu.
In the end, Episode Five proved to be a solid and very interesting look into Eugene Sledge’s arrival in the Pacific Theater’s war zone. It also provided a peak into John Basilone’s experiences as a war hero on the homefront and what might possibly be the beginning of the end of Robert Leckie’s circle of friends. The episode provided some interesting moments. I enjoyed hometown friends Sledge and Phillips’ immediate reconciliation and its interruption by Sledge’s company commander, Captain Andy Haldane. For some reason, it reminded me of a scene from 1994’s ”FORREST GUMP” depicting the lead character’s arrival in Vietnam. Their reunion became more serious as Phillips tries to warn Sledge that combat was not as they had imaged when they were kids. Leckie’s reunion with his friends brought a smile to my face. I have grown accustomed to all four of them that much. Did anyone notice the grizzled sergeant who was practicing bayonet thrusts when Sledge first arrived on Parvuvu? Keep an eye on him. The episode also featured a poignant moment when Sledge discovered that Phillips had left Parvuvu for leave, back home in Mobile.
But the one scene that caught me by surprise centered on a brief conversation between Leckie and Sledge, inside the former’s tent. That the producers would feature a meeting between the two did not surprise me. After all, ”THE PACIFIC” is a historical drama, not a documentary. There were bound to be some historical inaccuracies. I have yet to see a historical drama that DID NOT have historical inaccuracies – including the much lauded ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. What I found surprising about this scene was that actors James Badge Dale and Joseph Mazello made it clear in this ARTICLE that they did not have any scenes togethers. Guys? Lying is a big “no, no” to me.
The episode finally shifted to the First Marines Division’s landing on Peleliu and it was a doozy. The scene featuring Sledge’s beach landing struck me as surreal, especially in that brief moment when the sun shone in the Marine’s eyes as the amtrack conveying his regiment prepared to leave the ship and hit the water. The actual beach landings for both Sledge and Leckie were graphic and rather scary. The scene in which Sledge witnessed Shelton removing gold teeth from a Japanese soldier struck me as an ominous sign of more darkness for the naïve Sledge to encounter. But the biggest heartbreak – at least for me – was the moment when Leckie witnessed Hoosier being seriously wounded by Japanese artillery.
The acting, as usual, was up to par. Joseph Mazello gave a excellent performance as the intense, yet naïve Sledge. In fact, I have to point out that the actor really knows how to use his eyes to convey his character’s emotional state. I could probably say the same about James Badge Dale, who continued to give consistently first-rate performances as Robert Leckie. Both he and Mazello were perfectly understated in their one scene together. Jon Seda, whom we have not seen since Episode Three was solid as war hero John Basilone. I especially enjoyed his performance in a scene with Mark Casamento, who portrayed his younger brother George. As Sid Phillips, Ashton Holmes gave one of his better performances by perfectly balancing his character’s joy at seeing childhood friend Sledge and war weariness at trying to explain the realities of combat to his buddy. Many fans had been anticipating Rami Malek’s debut as Sledge’s very eccentric comrade, Merriell “SNAFU” Shelton. And Malek managed to brilliantly live up to Shelton’s reputation as an eccentric and somewhat cold-blooded warrior. However, I felt a slight disappointment that the Shelton character had already arrived at this emotional point upon his introduction. Considering that his character was already a veteran of the Cape Gloucester campaign, I am not surprised. But the audience will never get to witness Malek develop his character to that point, as we got to witness Ronnie Gibson develop from a rather nervous Marine, to a slightly demented warrior and emotional wreck.
Episode Five was a pretty damn good episode. Audiences managed to witness a full-fledged battle sequence in the daylight for the first time since this episode aired. But I have one major complaint. It ended too soon. I realize that the Peleliu campaign will stretch out in two more episodes, but I still believe that this particular episode should have had a longer running time. Other than that I am looking forward to Episode Six.