It took me a while to get around to Band of Brothers (2001), but I did, and I loved it. It's a solidly made miniseries that captures the hardships and camaraderie of Easy Company during World War II. This was a group of paratroopers who began their war experience on D-Day and continued on until Japan surrendered. We follow them from their training in Toccoa, Georgia to the end of the war.
1. While I'm not military aficionado, I managed to understand what was happening through well-scripted episodes that make things easy to follow. The way the characters interact, the authority with which they demand in situations, and they way the respond to events make it very clear how things are working militaristically speaking. More than once, Easy is set up with incompetent leaders (Captain Sobel played by David Schwimmer is a perfect combination of ineptitude and assholery), and I was able to follow the subtle acts of defiance and how dangerous that might be. This is just to say, as a woman and a rare viewer of war movies, it was easy to follow.
2. Band of Brothers emphasizes the humanness of these soldiers. They've probably never seen war, and we see them experience it for the first time. We see the seasoned soldiers grow to be hardened and contrasted with the naive replacements. We also see these men faking it in the worst places to be faking something, war.
One of the most bizarre events as far as a new perspective for me goes, was the one in which the company finds a concentration camp in Landsberg. None of them know what it is or what it's for. They just see men grotesquely thin and pale in baggy stripped uniforms looking out from a fenced area. For some reason Band of Brothers brings an almost surreal perspective to this scene, as the soldiers stare in wonder and meet the men in the camp. It's a reminder that this was a bizarre concept: starving people and working them to death in these camps. Seeing people learning of this for the first time is weird and frightening.
3. Within the structure of a ton of men, you get to know and love several of the colorful characters of the company. The by-the-books but awesome Richard Winters (Damian Lewis) and alcoholically awesome Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston) are the first to really be highlighted, and will be easy to spot throughout, not only because of their rank, but because of their personalities; Ron Livingston is hilarious as Nixon, and the interactions between best friends Winters and Nixon are always a bright spot in even the bleakest episode.
A tougher job is getting the privates some screentime. I recognized a few from other shows/movies, but many of them were new faces to me, which I think worked to the series benefit. While it would probably take me another viewing to really get a handle on a lot of these characters, I was able to identify quite a few, if not by name, by face and dialect because they were featured in an episode.
4. The most harrowing episodes for me took place in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. Secluded in a wooded area, undersupplied and underdressed for the winter cold, Easy company tries to hold their line, spending a lot of time in foxholes waiting for the next barrage of bullets/explosives. A couple of my favorite characters get highlighted in these episodes, the first of which is "Doc" Roe in episode 6, "Bastogne." Eugene Roe (Shane Taylor) was the medic of Easy Company, and was put through hell in this environment. He had limited supplies, forcing him to mooch morphine surettes and scissors from the soldiers just to fill his supply box. He tries to keep himself at a certain objective distance from the men of the company, only calling them by their last names, never by their nicknames, as he helps the men stay as healthy as they can. Obviously, this is tough work. Roe also meets a Belgian nurse a few miles back from the front lines where the seriously wounded are taken care of. This is one of the only places you see a woman in the whole miniseries, and she is a strong woman. She's sick of caring for the wounded and dying, and tells Doc Roe as much, but goes back and does her job well as she always will. It was refreshing to see a new perspective, both from a medic and a nurse, just to see another aspect of the war. By the end, you began to sympathize with the poor Doc Roe every time another man yells "Medic!"
5. The other man highlighted in Bastogne is Lipton in episode 7 "The Breaking Point." This character is around since the beginning, consistently competent and calm. I recognized Donnie Wahlberg instantly in the role, but he blends in well here. Lipton has such a quiet and strong presence throughout, and this episode where he narrates is a tough watch. The head leadership in the company is crap at this point, and he's left to look after everyone in the midst of a lot of death, wounds, and psychological issues within the company. This episode mostly just highlights what a good leader Lipton was, and how beaten down the company gets here.
6. The non-combat scenes take place in long takes with smooth camera movement, which contrasts with the chaotic handheld camera and editing during battle. I think this, more than anything, makes the battles come to life. It gives enough confusion to give a sense of how a soldier might feel in the midst of a gunshots. And the filming itself is done mostly in bleak neutrals, only bringing in colors at Toccoa at the beginning and Austria at the end, when the dirt can be removed and there isn't imminent danger. While this makes things realistic, it makes it hard tell who is who in the midst of the army green; you have to try to listen their voice and hope that you can recognize their face underneath their helmets.
7. It's am miniseries that take a certain amount of mental preparation to watch. I'm rarely in the mood to see likable men die in horrible ways (is anyone?), but it's a good watch that shows some true stories brought to life. The real men of Easy company are interviewed and shown at the beginning of each episode. We're not sure of who they are until the end of the series, but their presence and reflections give the series even more weight, seeing these older men get emotional decades after the war. It again brings the personal effects of war to the forefront. And when the series ends during a company baseball game a la The Sandlot, you treasure knowing what these guys did after the war, knowing that not everyone made it back.
The best thing I can say about this series is that it feels like a loss when it is over. Characters you liked died. You grew attached to certain mannerisms and how the company interacted. It felt like the end of an ordeal. Part of that has to do with the length (10 one hour episodes), but also because it was a well done character driven series. It's a bitter sweet end, and that stays with you.