Thursday, February 28, 2013

Band of Brothers

The Beloved Spouse and I watched Band of Brothers last weekend, cramming all ten episodes into three days. This is not recommended, watching as many as four episodes in a sitting; way too intense.

What I liked best about my initial viewing twelve years ago was the casting. Aside from David Schwimmer, I’d heard of none of them at the time. (That’s right, I didn’t catch Ron Livingston in Office Space until later.) Now that we know who a lot of the actors are from subsequent work, it’s fun to call out what we’ve seen them in since. (“The DOJ lawyer in Justified!” “Southland!” “That’s the guy who killed Phil Leotardi in The Sopranos!”) The first time, when everyone was new, the deaths of the characters were more affecting, as the viewer thought of them as the person, not the actor. The cumulative effect of feeling characters’ deaths more than actors’, along with not knowing who might be next, helped keep the suspense level high without resorting to melodrama.

On the other hand, it’s a war movie that doesn’t glorify war; a certain amount of melodrama is unavoidable. How it’s handled makes all the difference. A key scene takes place when Easy Company is returned to England for replacements and training after the Normandy invasion. Donald Malarkey stops by to pick up his laundry, and the English women who’s working there calls him back on his way out to ask if he can also take Lieutenant Meehan’s. We know Meehan’s plane was presumed lost over the English Channel. Rather than show some maudlin flashback, or look inside Malarkey’s mind, we see him pay her for the laundry, to spare her feelings. This leads to Malarkey picking up the laundry for half a dozen dead mates. The scene doesn’t linger any longer than necessary; the point has been made.

I haven’t seen The Pacific, but I can’t imagine the battle scenes can be done any better. Each scene is able to present a panorama that allows the viewer to know where he is, no matter the point of view. The rare exceptions are those times when the characters don’t know themselves. (TBS asked during the “Bastogne” episode, “How do they know where their own foxholes are?” Watching the soldiers’ reactions during an artillery attack, it’s clear they don’t, not precisely, and several are killed or badly wounded running around looking for a hole.) I didn’t hold the relative authenticity of the violence and its results against The Longest Day yesterday, but this ability to set place was available in 1962, as was shown by the wide shots of the attack on the Ouistreham casino.

The manner of conveying expository information is also far more seamless in Band of Brothers. Some of this is helped by the broader canvas afforded by an eleven-hour production. We pick up Easy Company in training, where scenes between recruits affords opportunities to show what’s going on, not tell. The writers also trust the intelligence of their audience more. This is a telling point, as most of their audience was not around for the Normandy invasion, while almost everyone who saw The Longest Day could tell you where they were when they heard about it.

Something else that struck me near the end of Band of Brothers occurred during Episode 9, when Easy Company discovers a concentration camp and I realized almost everyone with personal experience of the Holocaust is gone. This makes it more imperative than ever for their eyewitness accounts to remain in circulation. Holocaust deniers are bad enough now; they will only become emboldened when no one is left to directly refute their lies.

Watching Band of Brothers and The Longest Day back-to-back was an enlightening experience for me as a writer, though I’d recommend anyone who wants to try it watch The Longest Day first. The juxtaposition of different styles of storytelling and point of view will open your eyes to some things we may take for granted now. If you’ve seen neither, you owe it to yourself to do so. You’ll learn a lot more than just about writing.

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