War Is Hell: HBO's "The Pacific" Draws Fire for Producer Tom Hanks

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Photo courtesy HBO


Actors like Tom Hanks need to be really careful when it comes to commenting on weighty subjects like war and peace. That's because Hanks is not only very talented but also well liked, and why throw away all that goodwill on a few loose comments?

First some background. HBO's "The Pacific" is a WWII mini-series produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg that acts as a companion piece to their critically acclaimed HBO series "Band of Brothers." Just as "Band of Brothers" dealt with the war in Europe, "The Pacific," as you can probably tell from the title, deals with the horrors of the war in the Pacific.

It stars James Badge Dale, Jon Seda, Joe Mazzello and Ashton Holmes as four real young men who shipped out to tiny islands in the Pacific in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The first three episodes have been gritty and compelling, and during all those flying bullets, I kept being reminded of two things:

1) That, as I said when I wrote about "Saving Private Ryan" in a Memorial Day post two years ago, it's impossible for me to imagine how you go back to a "normal" life after experiencing the unspeakable destruction on the battlefield

2) That so much of war in those days was a uniquely male experience that women couldn't fully understand.

I like what I've seen of "The Pacific" so far, and if you want to gain a small understanding of what it's like to be in battle, I highly recommend it.

Now, back to Tom Hanks. He got himself into trouble a couple of weeks ago when in a Time Magazine cover story he seemingly implied that WWII, and today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, had more to do with racism than they had to do with:

  • The Japanese and the Nazis wanting to conquer the world and kill anyone who didn't go along with that, in addition to Jews, blacks, gays and anyone else they didn't like.
  • Islamic extremists wanting to conquer the world and kill anyone who doesn't go along with that, in addition to Jews, blacks, gays, and anyone else, especially women, who don't follow their interpretation of Islam.

This is how Hanks was quoted in Time:

"From the outset, we wanted to make people wonder how our troops can re-enter society in the first place," Hanks says. "How could they just pick up their lives and get on with the rest of us? Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as 'yellow, slant-eyed dogs' that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what's going on today?"

Conservatives got into a tizzy and weren't thrilled with Hanks' comments or his clarifications. God forbid I should agree with people who wanted Sarah Palin to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, but I kind of -- um, er...gulp, gulp -- agree with them. A little.

Just a little.

Here's the thing: Hanks' comments got me thinking about several issues. They appeared to imply that if we just understood each other better and celebrated our differences, there would have been no World War II and no war on terrorism.

But see, if that were the case, it would mean that all war was just one big misunderstanding, and that with a little give on both sides, we could all live comfortably in a peaceful world.

When it came to the Nazis, that wasn't the case. When it came to the Japanese in WWII, that wasn't the case. When it comes to Islamic extremists who fly planes into skyscrapers full of innocent people, that isn't the case. When it comes to Islamic extremists who strap on explosive vests and explode them in subways, that isn't the case. When it comes to American fanatics who blow up federal buildings, that isn't the case. When it comes to American Christian militias who train to kill cops, that isn't the case.

See, that's 'cause these are fanatics. There's no negotiating with fanatics. There's no discussing an understanding of our differences.

They want to kill us.

So unfortunately, kind of like in the jungles of the Pacific, with a Japanese soldier pointing a gun at you, it's kill or be killed. Once you're on the battlefield, it's too late for a discussion of our differences.

Now, was there racism against the Japanese in WWII? Absolutely. Go talk to Japanese Americans whose relatives were interned at Manzanar.

But that's not what WWII was about.

Now I like Tom Hanks. I always have. Since his "Bosom Buddies" days, and in spite of "Forest Gump" and "Castaway." So I'm willing to give him a pass on this one. I can only think he got into a simplistic rut while doing all those interviews and that in future, he'll explain himself more carefully.

After all, he's proven himself to be a staunch supporter of America's vets, especially those of WWII, and I think his actions honoring them make up for a few badly chosen words.

"The Pacific" airs on HBO, Sundays at 9pm.

Related Links:

Screen Siren has an interview with Joshua Bitton who co-stars in "The Pacific."

Sandie Angulo Chen has an interview with WWII veteran Dr. Sidney Phillips who's depicted in "The Pacific."

"The Pacific" Mini-Series:
Reflection and Comment
at Seeking Movies.com

Are you Watching "The Pacific?" at Dog-Eared and Well Read

Megan Smith is the BlogHer Contributing Editor covering Television/Online Video. Her other blogs are Megan's Minute, quirky commentary around the clock and Meg's Rad Review.

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