It's astonishing what television is capable of under the right direction. "Band of Brothers" (Sunday, HBO, 9-11 p.m.) is a high-tech marvel. It's dazzling to look at, even though its color palette is constrained to grays and olive drab. From the spectacle of allied planes flying to Normandy by night, to the mountains and lakes of Austria, the 10-hour miniseries is stunning.
Yet for all its physical power, the real appeal sits solidly in the soul of the piece. Its title (deliberately) recalls the St. Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's "Henry V," which rouses his exhausted, outnumbered men to fight. "This story shall the good man teach his son; And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by/ From this day until the ending of the world/ But we in it shall be remembered/ We few, we happy few, we band of brothers/ For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother...."
The speech (quoted in the film) is as much a token of Henry's love for his men as it is a pep talk for battle. And all the filmmakers involved in "Band of Brothers," from executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg to the writers, directors, and actors, have done their mightiest to make sure the men of Easy Company, the 506th Regiment of the United States Army's 101st Airborne Division, shall be remembered.
From the rigorous training of raw recruits in Georgia in 1942, we follow Easy Company's drop behind enemy lines on D-Day; the months without proper clothing, firepower, or food in the forests of Bastogne; then on to the Battle of the Bulge.
The men suffer battle fatigue; some become cynical about the war and horrified by what they have endured and what they have done. But eventually the evil that they have halted makes their purpose clear. When they take Hitler's "Eagle's Nest," they find it deserted, but the war in the Pacific rages on. Some may go, and some may go home. But when they do go home, how will they live with what they have seen?
A few of the real Easy Company veterans speak to us in interviews before each episode. Some of these admirable men weep, remembering their own suffering and that of their friends. But they cover a lot of ground, and each of these interviews sets the dramatic situation for each episode.
Of all the terrific characters, from the insecure Captain Sobel (David Schwimmer) to the caring Sergeant Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), the one who seems most mysterious and noble is Captain Winters (Damian Lewis). Winters commands Easy Company, carrying his dignity like a secret, impervious to assault from without. He doesn't drink, smoke, or swear, and it might have been tempting to exaggerate his fine nature.
Instead, Mr. Lewis's performance persuades us that men can be good, real, and intelligent. Winters's proves himself a brilliant strategist. The men respect him. They will follow him into the fiery furnace, out of which the bands of brotherhood are forged.
It's hard to refrain from hyperbole, because the riches of the series are so obvious. Indeed, it has a few minor faults: It can be hard to follow the story at times; and sometimes we are asked to make leaps in time and place that are never explained.
But "Band of Brothers" is an amazing accomplishment. It refrains from emotional manipulation (unlike Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan"). All 10 parts portray human nature as it is - mixed motives, conflicting impulses. It earns every emotion it inspires in us. If it is heartening, it's because it defies cynicism and reveals the realities of courage, compassion, and brotherhood as real men in a horrendous war practiced it.
Contains mature subject matter, graphic violence, and strong language.