Adapted from the recently-late Stephen Ambrose’s historical work of the same name, each episode of the miniseries shows the Easy Company unit fighting in some of the most significant battles, from the point of view of a different soldier. In the fifth episode, “Bastogne,” the miniseries focuses on the company’s medic Eugene Roe, as he scavenges for medical supplies as the unit is under constant shelling by the Germans; meanwhile, in the eighth episode, “The Last Patrol,” it of from the viewpoint of a West Point graduate who discovers how the reality of battle is different from what he was taught of the university’s training grounds.
To give a brief description of what unspools during the ten-plus hours of the miniseries is extremely difficult, given that the miniseries takes place over a four-year period. The company’s origins begin in the summer of 1942, with the men of Easy Company (part of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division) assembling at Camp Toccoa in Georgia for six months of basic training, under the strict command of Lt. Herbert Sobel.
After three months of basic training and jumping school, Easy Company parachutes into the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. With Easy Company landing scattered behind enemy lines, a number of the men re-group under the leadership of Dick Winters to help, in part, secure Utah Beach. From there they are pressed into the failed Operation MARKET-GARDEN campaign in Holland and then Bastogne (part of the Battle of the Bulge offensive), the latter where they suffered from freezing weather and combat exhaustion.
After Bastogne and an episode that works as a character study looking at how far the remaining men of Easy Company have come through the eyes’ of the younger Hanks character, the miniseries culminates with the discovery of concentration camps and their capture of Hitler’s mountain chalet in Berchtesgaden.
All told, this is a grueling, gritty look at World War II that doesn’t mince images of the horrors that went on there.
The Miniseries’ Strengths and Flaws
Besides its epic storyline and vivid characterization, what struck most viewers about the Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg-backed miniseries is its plush visuals. The eye-catching colors of the Boujeac Forest, the splendors of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest compound in Berchtesgarden, the planes maneuvering among anti-aircraft fire as the paratroopers take to the skies, the jumping sequences in mid-air— all are fantastic, as I wrote in my original “From Page to Screen” column. Also striking is the score done by Michael Kamen (he also provided the miniseries’ powerful theme).
Of course, the miniseries does have its problems. First and foremost is a problem that exists in with most war-themed films, including another superb 2001 effort, Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down.” There are more than 50 soldiers in the company who the viewers come to recognize during the course of the miniseries, each filtering in and out of the action (sometimes permanently) as they are wounded, killed and/or replaced by even newer faces. The company’s soldiers sustained an extremely high 150 percent casualty rate over the course of their service, creating problems for the viewers to identify who exactly is who among the unit. This feeling only increases during the superbly-executed scenes of battle, when the soldiers’ faces are obviously concealed. This problem is alleviated by the interactive field map feature found on the DVD, but to the casual viewer who watched this during the show’s run on DVD, this was a little daunting, and still remains so here for those who son’t explore the extras.
Some of the episodes were also inferior to others, including “The Lost Patrol” and “Replacements”; as Bruce C. McKenna, had candidly told me in an interview before the miniseries aired, “it’s hard to bat a thousand on a series like this.” It’s not uneven, as some have suggested, but an effort that strains to look at a complex time.
Others should be seen as stand-outs include the first two installments, “Curahee” and “Day of Days,” as well as “Bastogne” and “Why We Fight.” More than that, some of the fictional story points inserted into the storyline, including an almost-romance Roe had with a nurse, do not feel right in the finished product.
What holds the miniseries together character-wise is the company’s leadership of Richard Winters (played perfectly by the stoic Damian Lewis, showing many different faces as Winters rises through the ranks from a newly-commissioned 2nd lieutenant to become a major), Capt. Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston) and Sgt. Carwood Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg, albeit in a tonally-flawed performance). These three are the constants here throughout the miniseries. There are a dozen others who deserve notice as well, including Neal McDonough, Matthew Settle, Frank John Hughes, James Madio and Kirk Acevedo. Stangely, the Emmy’s did not nominate any of the miniseries’ actors for their roles— Lewis and Livingston should have been shoo-ins.
The bulk of the extras have previously aired on HBO— excerpts of the Normandy premiere ran on the channel’s “The Buzz” promos, while the “Making Of” and the documentary ran on the program in full. The newest offerings in the set are Ron Livingston’s video diaries and the interactive field guide, tLivingston’s diaries, punctuated by his wry sense of humor, are the best of the features. In it, he discusses the boot camp he and the other actors endured until the retired Col. Dale Dye (who also plays Col. Robert Sink in the miniseries), as well as the process he endured to both be cast and research the role.
Of the previously-aired features, “We Stand Alone Together” is by far the strongest. Before each of the miniseries’ episodes, there ran short interviews by those members of Easy Company still alive today, without naming them. This documentary is the missing piece of the puzzle, going more into their backgrounds and how they have lived their life since. This is a gem, made all the more poignant by some of those men featuring passing on during the past year (including Lipton, one of the more well-spoken of the survivors).
Scattered throughout the 6 discs, the various features work well in tandem with the episodes.
The DVD product is a fantastic effort by the HBO Video production team. What makes this stand apart from previous collections HBO has introduced to the marketplace is its delicious packaging—a metal tin embossed with the miniseries’ logo and the great shot of the miniseries’ principals atop a hill, their faces indistinguishable. This is an extremely classy design that will allow it to set itself apart from other products on retailers’ shelves.
The only thing that will make potential viewers wince is the staggering $110 retail list price. I’d advise consumers to check prices among the retailers in their area and go with who offers the best deal.
Upon viewing, one can easily tell the effort that went into the series, from the writers, directors, cast and crew. This is a superb miniseries, one of the best in recent memory— If you didn’t have a chance to see the first-run episodes on HBO, rent it to try out. If you enjoyed it on the cable network, make sure to put this on your holiday list. It’s an A by any means.
Aspect: Ratio Widescreen Animorphic (1.66:1)
Encoding: Region 1 (US and Canada)
Suggested Retail: $110.98
Audio: English (Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, as well as includes tracks in French and Spanish (both Dolby Digital 1.0 Surround)
Series Honors: Outstanding Miniseries Winner, Emmy’s; Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television, The Golden Globes; AFI Movie or Mini-Series of the Year, AFI Awards; Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Mini-Series and Specials, Television Critics Association Awards; Also a winner of a 2002 Peabody Award
The 6-disc DVD includes all 10 episodes of the miniseries, the documentary “We Stand Alone Together,” the premiere in Normandy and a “making of” featurettes, and actor Ron Livingston’s video diaries. Also included is an interactive “field guide,” which includes timelines, maps and profiles of the men of Easy Company.Rating: A