Monday, March 24, 2008

BAND OF BROTHERS (HBO 2001) HBO Home Video

Even if you know nothing of history, or presumably don’t go for ‘war movies’ it is hard not to develop an instant and lasting affinity with a lump in your throat for Band of Brothers (2001). Superlatives escape, but the memorable stories encapsulated within will endure for the ages.

Deriving its title from this quote by Henry V“From this day to the ending of the world, we in it shall be remembered. We lucky few. We band of brothers. For he who today sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” – producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hank’s have created a visually stunning, viscerally haunting, living testament to the valor, courage and bravery of those fateful many who defended honor and liberated Europe from Hitler’s tyrannical stronghold during WWII.

A ten part HBO mini-series with no equal; directed invariably by David Frankel, Tom Hanks, David Leland, Richard Loncraine, David Nutter, Phil Alden Robinson, Mikael Salmon and Tony To - each episode opens with authentic first hand recollections of the European conflict told by its survivors. With a budget nearly three times that of Spielberg’s own WWII epic Saving Private Ryan (1998), Band of Brothers is a small screen miracle that embarks upon a most ambitious quest – to create a lasting memorial to the soldiers behind the conflict; a graphic realization of their hopes and fears and ultimately, a celebration of their camaraderie.

Any assessment in review of this series’ in depth plot will undoubtedly prove futile. Nevertheless, summary judgment will stand in place of a blow by blow critique. Suffice it for this reviewer to encourage everyone reading herein to explore the breadth and intimacy of this magnificent achievement; as unique, poetic and heartrending as anything ever put on the screen.

Our story begins in earnest at a Georgian training camp where Capt. Herbert Sobel (David Schwimmer) is ruthlessly drilling the cadets of Easy Company in preparation for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Of his new recruits, Richard D. Winter (Damian Lewis) distinguishes himself early on – proving that he can endure Sobel’s punishments while maintaining discipline among the men. Schooling in parachute infantry – then a brand new concept in warfare – Sobel slowly begins to suffer his own mental breakdown. He repeatedly breaks under pressure and louses up tactical maneuvers; ultimately reassigned to a training school at Chilton Foley. This shift in the balance of power forces Winter to assume command of the airborne on their drop into Normandy.

On the eve before deployment, soldier Bill Guarnere (Frank Jone Hughes) learns that his brother – already fighting overseas – has been killed in combat. Determined that he should avenge his brother’s death while not suffering the same fate, Guarnere adopts a cocky devil-may-care exterior that conceals his true rage beneath a distinguished coat of Teflon valor.

In Episode 2: Day of Days – Lt. Winter and Easy Company suffer appalling casualties in an ill fated night drop over the skies of France. Reunited with fellow soldiers Donald Malarkey (Scott Grimes), Buck Compton (Neal McDonough), George Luz (Rick Gomez), Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston) and others, Winter moves the men on to a crippling assault, destroying the guns at Brecourt Manor and vowing to God in the end that if ever this war should spare his life he will return home and desire conflict no more.

In Episode 3: Carentan – Easy Company take a French town held under German occupation. Lt. Carwood Lipton (Donnie Walberg) is near fatally shot in the crotch while attempting to storm one of the civilian households under fire. Meanwhile Lt. Ronald Speirs (Matthew Settle) attempts to rehabilitate Pvt. Albert Blythe (Marc Warren) of his combat fear – instructing the soldier to consider himself already a casualty, thereby liberating his soul from the expectation of death. The rouse works and Blythe distinguishes himself during a Panzer attack – only to been fatally shot later on.

In Episode 4: Replacements – a troop of fresh-faced paratroopers join Easy Company in Holland for Operation Market Garden. Look for a then unknown James McAvoy as Private James Miller; eager to engage the Germans in combat without truly understanding the grit and gruel of hand to hand combat. In Holland, Easy Company suffers its worst round of casualties against the superior German blitz.

In Episode 5: Crossroads Winter leads a risky, though victorious mission on a Dutch dike. He is promoted to Battalion Executive Officer – a post that frustratingly removes him from the daily rigors of combat. However, his new appointment also forces Winter to contend with inferior officers commanding the forces beneath him in their latest effort deep within the Ardennes Forest.

Episodes 6: Bastogne and 7: The Breaking Point are bookends of a brutal struggle to hold off the Germans while contending with nature as an adversary. In the dead cold of winter, the men endure frost bite in their summer uniforms with little rations or ammunition to protect and sustain them. Medic Eugene Roe (Shane Taylor) develops a lasting romance with a Belgian nurse whom he later marries. In the end, Easy Company takes the town of Foy under the most animalistic carnage yet faced.

In Episode 8: The Last Patrol – Winter breaks rank to send in a second patrol into the Alsacian town of Haguenan after rooky Lt. James – eager to distinguish himself in battle – narrowly escapes total annihilation. Episode 9: Why We Fight – is arguably the most impacting emotional groundswell of the entire series.

Encountering little resistance, Easy Company enters Germany to discover a Nazi concentration camp with many of its emaciated prisoners still barely alive. This sickening reveal is compounded in the men’s minds when they enter a nearby town to learn that the local citizenry disavow any knowledge of the atrocities committed only a scant few miles from their place of residence. This episode concludes with the knowledge that Adolph Hitler has committed suicide.

In the final Episode 10: Points – Easy Company capture Hitler’s Eagle Nest; the once impregnable fortress where Nazi generals conspired to launch WWII. Armistice in Europe is declared, though the men are soon informed that they will be deployed to the Pacific to take part in the conflict with the Japanese. Comparing 'points' to decide which men have earned the right to go home, fortunately, at a makeshift base where the men are engaged in a baseball game, Winter and Nixon arrive with the bittersweet news that the Emperor of Japan has surrendered. WWII is over.

Episode 10 spends its final moments in summation of where glory’s path beyond the battlefield leads its greatest generation after arriving home. A few of the standouts: Compton, we learn became a prosecutor in LA – his most famous case; the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. David Webster (Eion Bailey) who became a celebrated writer for the Wall Street Journal and Saturday Evening Post disappeared at sea in 1961.

Lipton assumed the success of an executive for a glass manufacturing plant; Speirs remained in service for the rest of his life. Perhaps the most satisfying epitaph of them all is Winters – who moved to a farm in Hershey Pennsylvania where he fulfilled the promise made to himself in Episode 2; living in peace amongst the memories of his harrowing past.

It is saying much of this series that it achieves and sustains its strange cacophony of conflicted emotions throughout its lengthy running time; emotions that only seems to grow more robust and satisfying as each episode develops toward the series’ ultimate conclusion. As the audience, we start by wanting each man we meet in the first two or three episodes to return home with a hero’s welcome. We are quickly disillusioned when many perish on route to victory, and strangely, we feel disquiet and longing for the male bonding so poignantly depicted throughout that must disband at war’s end. We ponder – as the soldiers must have for themselves – on all the uncertainties ahead in the long years of peace and prosperity.

HBO Home Video’s anamorphic widescreen DVD transfers are worthy of their subject matter. The stylized palette of desaturated colors has been vividly reproduced with maximum sharpness, clarity and fine details evident throughout. Contrast levels have been enhanced – as intended – reflecting an almost ‘postcard’ graphic depiction of the conflict that is strangely very reminiscent of all the B&W photos seen in countless history books documenting the war. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and provides an aggressive and enveloping audio field. Extras include a plot summary for each episode and a beautifully produced documentary on the filmmaker’s journey in bringing Band of Brothers into living memory. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3.5

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