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Enlist TV for 'Band of Brothers'

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Mirroring America's involvement in World War II, HBO's 10-hour miniseries "Band of Brothers" gets off to a slow start. But -- again, like the nation -- once it gets started, "Band of Brothers" does not stop until the job is done.

This $120 million affair, co-executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, follows the men of the U.S. Army's Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne, from basic training in Georgia in summer 1942 to victory in Germany in fall 1945.

Along the way, this group of men, this "band of brothers" (a term borrowed from Shakespeare's "Henry V")," shoots and marches its way through many of the pivotal events of World War II in Europe: D-Day; the Battle of the Bulge; the horrific confrontation at Bastogne, Belgium; the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp and, finally, the capture of Hitler's infamous Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden.

Based on interviews with the remaining surviors from Easy Company and a 1992 book of the same title by author and historian Stephen E. Ambrose, "Band of Brothers" begins as the volunteer soldiers -- many in their teens -- are training to become America's first airborne troops, the fighters who are to be parachuted behind enemy lines into the heat of battle.

Training, bonding

CNN's Paul Vercammen talks with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks about their new HBO miniseries about World War II U.S. paratroopers (September 6)

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This first two-hour episode (airing Sunday, September 9, at 9 p.m. EDT, with subsequent episodes airing on successive Sundays), begins with their bonding as a unit in training and follows the men to D-Day, when they are dropped behind Utah Beach as part of the Allies' massive assault on the European continent. HBO, like CNN a division of AOL Time Warner, also will repeat episodes while the series is airing.

A cast of mostly unknown actors makes it difficult at first to identify and emotionally connect with individual characters. However, David Schwimmer (TV's "Friends") stands out in the first hour as Capt. Herbert M. Sobel, whose gung-ho approach is matched by his incompetence. His greatest success is uniting the men in their hatred of him.

Other characters gradually come into focus. British actor Damian Lewis plays Richard D. Winters, who emerges as a natural leader. Ron Livingston ("Office Space," 1999) portrays Winter's best friend, officer Lewis Nixon, who, despite an ongoing battle with the bottle, proves to be a level-headed touchstone upon whom the men come to depend.

Another standout is Donnie Wahlberg as Carwood Lipton, an enlisted man who becomes the glue holding the company together in the worst of times. And equally compelling is Scott Grimes as Donald Malarkey, whose transformation from a young innocent to a war-weary vet reflects the change experienced by thousands of men sent into that horrific conflict.

Hell -- realistically

The many battle scenes in "Band Of Brothers" are stylistically influenced by another Hanks/Spielberg teaming, "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). The brilliant use of sound and silence, hand-held cameras and choppy edits brings home the fact that war is hell. Nothing is held back. Men are talking one second, dead the next. Fingers, legs, and arms are blown off, and grown men scream for their mothers. Chaos reigns, and courage means just putting one foot in front of the other as men trudge into a relentless series of battles.

By the fourth episode, "Band Of Brothers" clearly has emerged as a profoundly intense experience that outshines any other World War II epic ever seen on television -- or, for that matter, in any Hollywood feature film.

There are two reasons: realism and time.

In depicting the conflict, "Band of Brothers" goes where no film has gone before. World War II, the last "good war," has been romanticized ad nauseam by everyone from John Wayne to Deborah Kerr. Not this time.

"Band," which dutifully portrays soldiers' remarkable feats of courage, also strips away the hoary veneer perpetuated by all those other World War II films. It shows inept American military officers sending men needlessly to their deaths; G.I.'s looting homes and shooting unarmed Germans; and soldiers running from battle or freezing in their tracks. People -- the good, the bad and those in-between -- are exposed in their glory and their flaws.

Time plays a role, too. The word "epic" is overused in Hollywood -- anything with a loud soundtrack is bestowed with that lofty adjective these days -- but with 10 hours of air time to cover the most seminal event of the 20th century, "Band Of Brothers" truly deserves the label.

With this huge canvas, "Band"'s filmmakers are allowed to fully explore their subject matter. Easy Company unfolds in its entirety as men die, replacements come and go, and the wounded rejoin their comrades on the front lines.

With so much time, this true, big story develops an equally large emotional arc, one with the punch of a howitzer.

Superb photography, casting

The production design by Anthony Pratt is painstakingly realistic down to the smallest detail. Joel J. Ransom and Remi Adefarasin switched back and forth as the directors of photography, and the seamless results are stunning.

Shot in England with 500 speaking parts and 10,000 extras, "Brothers" is a stunning achievement in casting. Everyone does exceptional work, but special kudos must go to Kirk Acevedo as Joseph Toye, Frank John Hughes as William Guamere and Eion Bailey as David Kenyon Webster.

Also look for Colin Hanks, Tom's 23-year-old son, as Lt. Jones in episode No. 8. He does an excellent job as a pink-cheeked West Point graduate who is eager to please and bursting to prove himself in battle.

Maybe it's because we've recently changed millennia, and are looking back one last time at events that shaped the 20th century, or maybe it's just collective guilt felt by baby boomers who never got the chance to fight "a good war"; whatever the reasons, Americans are fascinated with that global conflict.

"Band Of Brothers" is a remarkable testament to that generation of citizen soldiers, who responded when called upon to save the world for democracy and then quietly returned to build the nation that we now all enjoy, and all too often take for granted.

• HBO: 'Band Of Brothers'

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