Our rating: 3 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a WWII veteran who served under General Patton. Written into his weathered features and gentle blue eyes were a thousand stories of courage, honor, and bravery in the midst of tremendous peril, but one of the first thing he said was, "I don't like talking about the war." I'm not surprised. It's one thing to watch men mown down in the trenches, and another to have been there. Band of Brothers both pays homage to those brave Americans who fought overseas, and attempts to give us some understanding of the truth in the phrase, war is hell.
Mud dirt and occasional blood are fought in during basic training in Camp Toccoa. The year is 1942 and a couple dozen brave souls are training for paratrooper duty, one of the most difficult and dangerous branches of the military. For the men of 'E' Easy Company, training is particularly difficult due to their commanding officer, Captain Herber Sobel (David Schwimmer). A perfectionist with many inadequacies, he drives them to excel on such demanding terms that he is widely disliked, in spite of his talent at hardening them for battle. When he cracks under pressure during a training exercise and loses his focus, certain of his men fear that he may lead them to certain death when the real war games begin. His second in command is the well-liked Lt. Dick Winters (Damian Lewis), who is not as hard on the men but proves himself resourceful and intelligent in battle. Once in England, the men of the Company attempt to discern how to displace one soldier in favor of the other -- without being court marshaled and shot.
With that peril behind them, the firestorm begins as they paratroop behind enemy lines in an aggressive move to take foreign soil and drive back the Germans. "D" Day has begun and many of them will lose their lives in the process. One of the strengths of this miniseries is its ability to create genuine characters -- the most obvious is Winters, who carries the audience through the majority of the episodes and is our "constant." His survival assures the audience that they can relax, that at least he is safe from death... but no one really can relax watching this series, because war is brutal, war is terrible, and war is bloody. Many of these men are not going to make it and we are left hanging onto the edge of the couch, our heart in our throat, holding our breath and hoping all of them miraculously come out unscathed. It's the smaller moments that really stick with you -- the jokes and swapping of cigarettes, the parachute one boy wants to send home "since it'll make a nice wedding dress, with the rationing," the Irish boy risking a bombardment of bullets to perform the last rites on fallen fellow American soldiers, the laughter and friendship among these men before the bombardment of bullets resumes. If you can make it through this series without tearing up in almost every episode, it'll be a miracle. What helps bring the series into focus are the interviews with real veterans, on whom many of the characters are based. That lends it a shocking sense of accuracy that resonates as the stories unfold. (But we do not learn which veteran is which character until the end.)
If you are not prepared for a long, emotional and draining experience, this series is not for you. It's long. It's violent. It's gut-wrenching. It is, frankly, hard to watch because as we see hundreds of men on both sides mowed down by machine guns, the notion lingers in our mind that they are all human beings fighting for what they believe -- all of them are sons and some of them are fathers, husbands, and brothers. And while I think HBO has done a tremendous job both in terms of authenticity and casting (the cast is enormous -- comprised of fifty or more main actors with speaking parts who come in and out of different episodes), it contains the same problem that almost all their material does -- profane content. I'm not talking about the blood, either -- this is a war miniseries and as such we can expect a lot of brutal gunfire, bullets flying through the air, and limbs being blown off. I'm talking about foul language of the sort that makes this unlikely to be shown in classrooms, where it really should be shown. General conversation is fine for the most part, although the lower ranks of soldiers do tend to routinely abuse Jesus' name, but once battle starts the language turns salty. It's harder to know what is flying faster -- bullets or f-bombs. God's name is paired with a profanity multiple times. S**t is also used more frequently than not. There are a handful of reverent references to faith and God (Winters' faith is downplayed, but he is shown praying and refrains from cursing like the rest of the men do -- he is accused of being a Quaker and denies it) but most of it is profane.
Violence ranges from planes going down and being ripped in half by gunfire (a massive explosion sets a number of paratroopers inside on fire, and we hear them screaming) to limbs being shot off. Fingers are shown hanging by a thread; legs split and fall through the air; bullets punch holes in individuals, sometimes leaving them dead and other times just in pain. One man is caught in a bomb and half his face is burned off; a gaping, gruesome wound is shown in his leg. Two main characters we have grown to love and respect lose their legs in an explosion. Soldiers with missing limbs are scooped off the battlefield. Thousands lose their lives in an exchange of gunfire. In one particularly disturbing scene, a soldier mows down a horse drawn cart full of German soldiers -- including killing and injuring the horses; dead animals are piled up to be used for protection during skirmishes. It's implied on several occasions that enemy soldiers held captive are given cigarettes and then shot down like dogs by their guards. One episode revolves around a medic on the battlefield, so we see lots of blood, severed body parts, and him digging around to retrieve bullets. Germans and Americans alike are shot in the head; explosions take out barricades, foxholes, and down planes. It's implied men are burned to death when their airplane catches fire. Our emotions are tugged when the soldiers liberate a concentration camp -- the camera lingers on starving people, dead bodies in ditches, and smoking in the ovens.
The eighth episode features backside nudity in the showers; the ninth episode includes a brief but explicit sexual encounter (upper breast nudity on the woman, backside nudity on the man) about five minutes in, before another soldier interrupts them. Other references to sexual intercourse are infrequent but present. In my opinion, the best two episodes are the final two, in which we see the soldiers enter Germany and eventually capture Eagle's Nest, Hitler's remote mountain chateau. The scenery is exquisite, the friendship between these characters perceptible, and the acting is tremendous, particularly from Damien Lewis, whose Winters becomes the audience's primary focus, their stronghold, and obtains their greatest respect. Familiar faces include James McAvoy, Ron Livingston, Neal McDonough, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bamber, Tom Hardy, Ben Caplan, and Colin Hanks. It is an experience that taught me much, introduced me to some genuine heroes, and will never be forgotten. But I would like to know why so much profanity had to be included -- particularly when the f-word was not in common usage during WWII. For all its accuracies elsewhere, that seems a glaring, obvious, and intentional mistake that greatly diminished my overall experience.
(On a minor note, both TV Guardian and ClearPlay have filters for this series. I suggest you use them.)