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HBO's 'Band of Brothers': flawed, but worthy

Saturday, September 08, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HBO's "Band of Brothers" is a slow build.

That's not to say the World War II miniseries disappoints in its two-hour premiere tonight at 9, but expectations are sky high. After all, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are the 10-part program's executive producers.

Hanks' involvement recalls his outstanding 1998 HBO miniseries about the space program, "From the Earth to the Moon." With Spielberg's name bandied about, there's every reason to think this might be "Saving Private Ryan: The Television Series."

It's not.

It took Spielberg's 1998 film just shy of three hours to wring tears and heartfelt emotion out of audiences that watched the traumas endured by American soldiers on a mission. I didn't get misty watching "Band of Brothers" until the final episode.

There's a simple reason for this: Early on, "Band of Brothers" is more methodical, less emotional due to its large, unwieldy cast. Once the uniformed soldiers put their helmets on, it's tough to tell them apart. If you're like me, you'll spend too much time trying to figure out who just got killed to work up much sympathy for the mystery victim.


"Band of Brothers"

When: 9 tonight on HBO.

Starring: Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Scott Grimes, David Schwimmer.


That's inevitable in a cast-of-hundreds war film, but also somewhat correctable in the scripting (writers include Hanks, Graham Yost, Erik Jendresen, Erik Bork, John Orloff and Bruce C. McKenna).

Fortunately, with each subsequent episode the characters become more distinct, their names clear, and the deaths that follow have greater emotional resonance.

Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Stephen Ambrose, "Band of Brothers" follows the soldiers of the U.S. Army's Easy Company, the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. It chronicles their training in Georgia in 1942 through the Battle of the Bulge to the end of the war in Europe with the capture of Hitler's Eagle's Nest in 1945.

The saga begins as the men meet and begin training in Toccoa, Ga., under the leadership of the despotic Lt. Sobel, played by David Schwimmer (he comes across as his "Friends" character playing soldier while in a bad mood).

Sobel earns the troops' disdain, but never their respect. That's reserved for Lt. Richard Winters (Damian Lewis), who is quickly established as the central figure in "Band of Brothers."

Tonight's second hour, "Day of Days," is set on D-Day as the paratroopers soar into occupied France. These episodes introduce the miniseries' most distinguished troopers: rascally Malarkey (Scott Grimes), serious Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), literate Webster (Eion Bailey), trustworthy Guarnere (Frank John Hughes) and mysterious Speirs (Matthew Settle).

There's also Southern-fried Col. Sink (Dale Dye) and Winters' best friend, the not-so-ambitious Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston).

If the first two episodes of "Band of Brothers" are unfocused, that changes with episode three, "Carentan," which focuses on Pvt. Blithe (Marc Warren), who is justifiably terrified during combat.

By the fifth episode, "Crossroads," viewers will care deeply about Winters, a solid leader and a man of high principles who is haunted by an unnecessary kill.

With pursed lips and a haunted visage, Lewis is well cast in this pivotal role. Serious, wholesome characters can sometimes come off as boring, but Lewis gives Winters a dark edge that makes his goodness all the more compelling.

Most episodes of "Band of Brothers" open with the recollections of real-life veterans (similar to a couple of episodes of the Vietnam TV drama "China Beach"), all of whom are portrayed by actors in the miniseries (the vets aren't identified by name until the last episode). These veterans help put into context the episodes that follow.

Episode No. 4, about the treatment of replacements who join Easy Co., begins with a veteran explaining his own reluctance to welcome them with open arms.

"It got to where I didn't want to be friendly with replacements coming in because, God, I didn't like seeing 'em get killed," he says.

The emotion with which they discuss their wartime experiences is extremely moving and makes up for what the miniseries sometimes lacks.

Along with confusion over who's who, "Band of Brothers" has an irritating continuity error. David Webster is brought on a mission in episode No. 8 because he speaks some German and can act as a translator when the Americans capture German soldiers. But in the next episode, when Easy Co. liberates a German concentration camp, Webster doesn't seem to speak German.

It's an odd but noticeable gaffe, perhaps the result of different directors working on each episode. They include Hanks, Phil Alden Robinson ("Field of Dreams"), David Nutter ("Disturbing Behavior") and David Frankel ("Miami Rhapsody").

Despite some flaws, "Band of Brothers" is an engrossing war story with much to recommend, from the spectacular special effects to moments of quiet drama. It gives viewers a sense of scope lacking in two-hour war films (even "Private Ryan"), deftly portraying the suffering and duration of World War II, which often resembles a deadly game of hide and seek.

The terror, the agony and the bloodshed are all conveyed with stark candor as bullets whir past and trees explode from shelling. Viewers will see limbs blown off, bullet wounds and gallons of blood. "Band of Brothers" is an oftentimes taut, high-gloss production, but it's not for the squeamish.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to LINK www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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