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Photo courtesy of HBO

10-part miniseries
Premieres March 14 at 9 pm on HBO.

On Peleliu, during one of the bloodiest and arguably most pointless battles of World War II, Alabama-born Eugene Sledge, a.k.a. Sledgehammer, and his Louisiana pal Shelton, a.k.a. Snafu, share a brief respite. Inside a bunker whose roof and walls have been mostly blown off are two dead Japanese. One is bullet-riddled and leaning up against the wall whose opposite side Sledge squats wearily next to. The other has his skull top sliced neatly off, revealing a bloody puddle within. Above him perches Snafu, who scoops up pebbles and drops them metronomically, almost absent-mindedly, into the open brain pan—PLUNK, PLUNK, PLUNK.

Between inevitable eruptions of rage and terror on war’s front lines, numbness is all. The two marines are mostly silent. Finally Sledge, reacting to the repeated PLUNK, hauls himself up, unsheathes his knife, clambers around what’s left of the wall dividing him from the intact dead Japanese. He’s about to dig out the corpse’s gold teeth, as he’s seen others, including Snafu, do. Then Snafu drawls softly but imperiously, “You don’t wanna do that, Sledgehammer.” The verbal jockeying is a seesawing stalemate till Snafu says, almost gently, “You a doctor’s son, right? Medics say these Japs got weird germs, get to ya after they’re dead. You don’t wanna do that, do ya?”

That lets Sledge retarget his rage: “All right with you if I take this insignia, then?” “Oh, yeah,” Snafu is pure nonchalance now. “Insignia got no germs.”

A surreal pact between foxhole buddies: Snafu helps Sledge hang on to a tattered piece of his prewar humanity in one of the most forsaken places war has ever seen.

At its best, The Pacific, the 10-episode HBO miniseries, captures the myriad realities of what hell does to its inhabitants—including moments of redemption. In that and other ways, it’s a more tightly focused Band of Brothers, moved halfway around the globe.

Three marines—Sledge, John Basilone, and Robert Leckie, real men who fought in the Pacific theater—are the miniseries’ main characters. Their individual stories intertwine to provide narrative continuity, but are divergent enough to offer historically accurate and dramatically effective angles on ground-level aspects of the Pacific war, from Guadalcanal through Okinawa.

Leaving his large, boisterous Italian family after their 1941 holiday dinner, John Basilone (Jon Seda) earns a Medal of Honor for his outsized heroics after the deceptively easy landing on Guadalcanal. He becomes the Corps’ first and, at this dark hour, badly needed, hero, embraced by a reeling America: he muscles a heavy machine gun with his bare hands while he charges around raking flocks of enemy troops.

In Australia for R and R, he nearly pukes on the award letter Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller shows him. Puller persuades him to go back home for a Hollywood starlet–studded bond drive tour: “You know what we need out here, and it all costs money.” Basilone does his duty—staying in hotels’ presidential suites, bedding starlets, appearing on radio and at Radio City Music Hall. Finally, he can’t take it. So he bails out to train new boots at Camp Pendleton, finds love and gets married, and reups for another hitch so he can go with his company to Iwo Jima.

Bob Leckie (James Badge Dale) gets blooded on Guadalcanal as a hardened, sharp-tongued rifleman, where he and Basilone at times pass each other—first when Basilone’s unit is pulled off the line and passes Leckie’s, its replacement.

‘Neither documentary nor historical overview, The Pacific is outstanding historical drama’

Leckie meets a Greek girl during the marines’ Australian regrouping, and is adopted into her family until she cuts him cold when he’s ordered to New Britain. There, the endless rain and mud and blood infest his deepening sense of isolation and rejection, spurred by his lieutenant’s riding; he short-circuits physically and mentally, and develops enuresis—uncontrollable urination. That lands him in a hospital, with tropical sun and startling white bed linen and starched nurses and an affable shrink who, dispelling Leckie’s fears, shrugs, “I don’t do anything here except check people out and send them back.” He lugs his growing cache of books to Pavuvu, the marines’ new staging area, and crosses paths with Eugene Sledge.

Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) follows a boyhood chum into the marines; they reunite on Pavuvu, after the newbie passes a hard-ass old gunnery sergeant lunging fiercely with his fixed bayonet into imaginary Japanese troops. Laughed out of Leckie’s tent in his search for a bunk—one of many times replacements are ragged, ignored, or taunted by vets, each “generation” in its turn—he comes back to browse the books, and comes up with a Bible. “Ah, a believer,” sneers Leckie. “Me, I believe in ammunition.”

After landing on Peleliu, frozen in fascinated fear as he watches the doors of his landing craft open up to a growing blaze of white light like something from a dream, Sledge bolts onto the exploding, body-strewn beach, where he finds out exactly what Leckie means.

Part of what makes war hell is the desperate disorientation that engulfs each individual. Homicidal chaos surrounds you and all you have left are your autonomic training, your buddies, and whatever passes for your luck. The aggressive battle sequences in The Pacific mimic and convey that to devastating effect. Expanding on models like Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima flicks and television’s Homicide: Life on the Street, at pressurized moments the frame stutters and shakes, perspectives shift and jumble, suddenly flaring light is swallowed by spews of smoke and dust and the odd body part while men drop relentlessly, some shredding, some exploding, some crumpling, their screams lost in the tremendous tumult. It’s about as visceral and real as hell on screen can get.

Neither documentary nor historical overview, The Pacific is outstanding historical drama. It matches dazzling camera work with solid and evocative ensemble acting; generally sharp pacing; varied, if sometimes formulaic, romantic interludes; welcome if familiar forms of comic relief and spiky gallows humor; and careful attention to historical verisimilitude in scenery, costumes, weapons, and materiel. All of it is expertly laced with the virtuosic emotional tension-and-release executive producer Steven Spielberg has made his trademark.

Each episode opens with documentary footage, narrated by executive producer Tom Hanks and punctuated with on-camera testimony from surviving marine vets, some of them represented in the miniseries. No mere gesture, this is a cunning, knowing nod to the distance between history and historical movies—a distance The Pacific does its cinematic best to bridge, with powerful success.

Read exclusive interviews with Bruce McKenna, The Pacific‘s chief screenwriter and co-executive producer, and Capt. Dale Dye, military advisor to the miniseries.