Television: Back To The Beachhead

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg return to war. But this time, realism and reverence aren't enough

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In Band Of Brothers, war is more than hell; war is real. No one is consumed by a pillowy fireball or gasps out a soliloquy before expiring. Men are shot in midsentence, drop like sacks of flour and die sloppily, whining like animals. This is war as it happened, brutal and random, and in re-creating it Brothers captures viscerally the extraordinary sacrifice of a generation of ordinary men.

There you have pretty much the blurbs one suspects HBO and producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg were aiming for with this 10-hr. World War II mini-series (Sundays, 9 p.m. E.T.). Judged on apparent realism, it earns them. It effectively borrows the jerky, chaotic camera techniques that Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (which Hanks starred in) used to mimic the soldiers' confused, terrified perspective. It is based closely on historian Stephen Ambrose's book about Easy Company, an elite paratroop unit that had the dubious luck to land knee-deep in key moments of the war in Europe, from D-day to the Battle of the Bulge to the capture of Hitler's mountain fortress. And it has gone through the same, now obligatory seal-of-approval process as Ryan: screenings for real live veterans who emerged to say, They got it. This is what it really looked like. If you believe that is all the praise a war story needs, Brothers is for you. But if you believe there is more to good drama than documentary-like detail, then Brothers demands the question: Is being real its own justification?

Following Easy deep into Europe, Brothers shifts its focus among a vast ensemble that changes as the casualties mount; almost all are portrayed by little-known actors, so the viewer can't intuit who will survive. Grisly and deadpan, Brothers seeks to be a corrective to movies that romanticized war. Yet in a way its unvarnished reality replaces the old glorification of war with a new kind. In the eighth episode, a voice-over by one soldier almost petulantly wonders if noncombatants would ever understand the soldiers' sacrifice: "How could anyone ever know the price paid by soldiers in terror, agony and bloodshed if they'd never been to places like Normandy, Bastogne or Haguenau?" This is the unofficial credo of Brothers. If you weren't there, it is determined to put you there--to hammer you with explosions, jargon and blood until you cry uncle, until at last you get it.

And you do, superficially. The $120 million budget bought phenomenal special-effects firepower, and there are haunting moments: a terrified soldier digging a foxhole in the frozen earth with his bare hands, just liberated Dutch townsfolk rounding up women who slept with Germans and shearing off their hair. But unlike Ryan, which bared its fictional GIs' souls, Brothers fatally neglects to turn its cast into distinguishable characters. Combat flattens out nuance in personality, and Brothers teaches us little about its soldiers outside battle. An exception is Easy's leader, Richard Winters (Damian Lewis); the fine, Hanks-directed fifth episode explores Winters' trauma after he shoots a German point-blank, but in later episodes Winters reverts to a valiant cipher.

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