The Art of War
by Gary Kamiya, Salon.com, September 8, 2001
HBO’s massive and bloody miniseries, “Band of Brothers,” attempts the impossible and nearly succeeds.
The history of serious movies about war, from “Paths of Glory” to “Johnny Got His Gun” to “Apocalypse Now” to “Saving Private Ryan,” is a history of attempts to do the impossible: turn the unthinkable into art. The problem, always, is truth. If a work of art about war does not tell the truth, it is obscene — but how can one tell this truth? And what is it, anyway? Is it a former human being who has been turned into pieces of bloody meat by large fragments of metal? Or is it the soaring words of Abraham Lincoln: “That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain …”? Falstaff or Prince Hal? Hideous death or trumpets and brass? What form, what story line, what aesthetic approach can capture war’s nihilistic horror and still contain some larger meaning?
“Band of Brothers,” Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ ambitious 10-part miniseries based on the bestselling book by Stephen Ambrose, doesn’t aspire to square this ultimate circle, but it is still a serious film with a serious purpose. It attempts to tell an epic story — the career of a celebrated American infantry company in World War II, from D-Day through the end of the war — without resort either to the patriotic grandiosity or to the narrative devices we associate with such tales. It wants to occupy a kind of middle ground, somewhere between the sobriety of documentary and the daring of great feature-filmmaking: to accurately show the at-times nightmarish reality of life in a combat unit, while affirming both the essential decency and the extraordinary heroism of the men in that unit.
It succeeds, persuasively, on both scores — and yet it is not an artistic masterpiece. Whether it could have been one without sacrificing its dedication to the truth of its chosen story is a difficult question to answer.
“Greatest Generation” hoopla has begun to feel increasingly canned, but “Band of Brothers” isn’t sentimental except in the largest, most legitimate sense. Its heroes aren’t John Wayne cutouts: They loot, make anti-Semitic cracks, drink too much, gun down Germans unnecessarily. Yet the series is untinged by revisionism. The shortcomings of its characters are dwarfed by their heroism — and thanks to virtuoso, you’re-in-the-next-foxhole direction and cinematography, you feel their fear and their courage in your face, your gut and your heart.
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