The HBO original mini-series “Band of Brothers” is the kind of filmmaking enterprise that makes the word “epic” seem inadequate. The series (smartly) takes a myopic view of the war, focusing on a small group of men instead of giving us a grand tale that encompassed all the different shades and theaters of the war effort. It is, for all intents and purposes, a personal story about the trials and tribulations, the victories and defeats, and the heroism and cowardice of a single company in a war that involved hundreds of thousands of companies. The company in question is Easy Company, a tiny fraction of the 101st Airborne Division, the American military’s paratrooper corp. The mini-series, which ran for 10 straight weeks on HBO, was produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, with Hanks serving as writer and director on a couple of episodes.
The men that starts and ends as the heart and soul of “Band of Brothers” is Dick Winters (Damian Lewis), a mild-mannered small-town man who proves to be an extraordinary leader, and Winters’ best friend, Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston), a rich Easterner who discovers his many inadequacies during the war. The mini-series follows Easy Company from their training to their deployment into France during D-Day, and finally into Germany, where Easy Company liberates Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest — the Third Reich leader’s hideaway mountain retreat.
Through the 10 episodes, the focus shifts between different men of Easy Company, and by series’ end, everyone has been given their time in the spotlight. The remarkable thing is just how well the series works as a single series. At the beginning the characters blend together because there are so many of them, so many names and faces to remember, that they become indistinguishable. By the time the series wraps up with Episode 10, we have intimate knowledge of all those who have survived — and those who didn’t. Because the series is based on true accounts, all of the characters are based on real men, and those who die in the series actually died in real life. This gives the series a grounded and very gritty feel. These people actually died — or lived — through this hell.
The series is based on a nonfiction book by noted World War II historian Stephen Ambrose. Each episode, besides focusing on different groups of men within Easy Company, uses a round robin of directors and writers. Some names are more famous than others, but each one has a very good grasp on the subject matter, and the directors all employ similar filming styles. It helps that the series employs only two cinematographers in Remi Adefarasin and Joel Ransom. The two men provide the series with a constant look and feel, giving the impression of one long 10-hour movie instead of a 10-part mini-series.
The series’ maintenance on a constant vibe is also a testament to producers Hanks and Spielberg. The different episodes range from the storming of a French town to the hellish stand of Easy Company in the Bastogne forest under heavy German barrage. Each episode has its own unique view of the war, but the down-and-dirty and the you-can-die-at-any-moment feel remains throughout. Because the series was filmed for HBO, the language is raw, and so are the violence and massive bloodshed. In a word, “Band of Brothers” doesn’t flinch from the horrors and miseries of war, and those with a squeamish stomach will have plenty to close their eyes at. Everything is here, shown in brutal color. Death comes suddenly and without notice, and survival is a miracle of circumstances.
Besides Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston, other actors of note are Donnie Wahlberg, formerly of the New Kids on the Block, who shows up as an embattled soldier with an unyielding determination to not only survive, but keep his fellow “brothers” alive as well. There’s Matthew Settle as Ronald Speirs, a Captain who may or may not have murdered dozens of German POWs in cold blood. Speirs embodies the stone-cold courage and psychosis of a man born for the single purpose of fighting wars.
Another very smart move by the producers was to invite the real-life survivors of Easy Company to narrate the beginning of each episode. In each one, we see these grizzled men talking about the horrors of the war, the friendships they built, and the brotherly love they shared for the men of their unit — strangers who became closer than brothers. It’s all real and completely honest. The producers also refuse to identify the real-life men of Easy Company until the very end, in Episode 10. This keeps the audience who hasn’t read Ambrose’s book from guessing who will die and who will survive. It works, and the death of various characters was shocking and sad, and the survivals of others were stunning and euphoric.
The things that could be said about the men and women who fought and died in World War II could fill hundreds of books. Maybe that’s why there are already hundreds and thousands of books on the war and those who fought it, and maybe that’s also why there are hundreds — and will soon be thousands — of movies about the war.
CONTINUE FOR A REVIEW OF ALL 10 EPISODES…