HBO can pretty much do no wrong.
Last year, around this time, the fourth season of “The Sopranos” was delayed to give creator David Chase more time to work on the upcoming seasons of his Emmy-winning project. Disappointed fans did not want to wait another year for a new season and sadly, the new season has not proved worth the prolonged hiatus. However, during those few months last fall, at the normal Sunday at 9 “Sopranos” timeslot, HBO unveiled an incredible 10-part mini-series about a company of men who served in World War II. Even when HBO disappoints, it finds a way to be better than everyone else.
Now, that mini-series, “Band of Brothers,” arrives in stores, and the six-DVD set suitably matches the supreme quality of the actual program. If you’ve seen the episodes then you’ve probably already thought of buying the DVD set and the lavish tin that contains the DVDs surely will push you over the purchasing edge. For those who have somehow survived without witnessing the mini-series from creators Steven Spielberg and Tom Hank, then this is your chance.
Shot in that signature “Saving Private Ryan” style, the series not only echoes the Spielberg WWII drama but surpasses it in quality and excitement. The intensity and realism of those first 20 “Private Ryan” minutes is once again imagined numerous times in “Band of Brothers.” While the arrival by sea onto Omaha beach in “Ryan” was violent and turbulent, the view from above as seen by the featured Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division is an infinitely more thrilling and visually breathtaking experience. If that treacherous D-Day sequence in episode two does not include enough CGI paratroopers and airplanes in the sky, then the Operation Market Garden drop into Holland later in the series will certainly delight the eye.
With a gigantic cast featuring at least 100 speaking roles and centering around a core group of at least 20 soldiers, a viewer can easily become lost in the maze of names and ranks. Lt. Dick Winters (Damian Lewis) and company information officer Capt. Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston, “Office Space”) are the closest the viewer gets to main characters as different episodes usually focus on different men of the company, but all usually comes back to them. In a cast largely made up of unrecognizable faces and names, David Schwimmer stands out as Lt. Herbert Sobel, Easy Company’s original commanding officer before his in-the-field mistakes propel Winters into his position. In his brief role, Schwimmer delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance. Another key supporting role is that of company 1st Sgt. Carwood Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg). The brilliant, young, unfamiliar cast helps the realistic production feel even more authentic as the absence of any real star gives the viewer a band of men to relate to, and not just a single hero (i.e. Tom Hanks).
Based on the non-fiction book by the late Stephen Ambrose, the mini-series follows Easy Company from the previously mentioned drop on D-Day to their holding the line at the Battle of the Bulge and finally onto the raiding of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. It all seems so amazing that one small company (with one of the highest casualty rates of the war) could accomplish so much and be a part of so many astounding events in such a short time but unlike “Saving Private Ryan,” the stories are all true. With episodes directed by such talents as Phil Alden Robinson (“The Sum of All Fears”) and Tom Hanks, that signature Hollywood/Spielberg stamp of patriotic phoniness never makes its way into the series; the War is presented as realistically and complex as war really is, with the audience deciding who the heroes are, not the filmmakers.
Most of the bonus features could have been seen by an HBO viewer over the past year, but that doesn’t make them any less remarkable. Any qualms over the lack of commentaries should be silenced by the 30-minute “Making of ‘Band of Brothers'” which includes cast and crew interviews and wondrous behind-the-scenes footage of the giant $110 million production coming together with weapons specialists, uniform specialists, snow specialists and more. Also included is “We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company,” the emotional documentary which pieces together interviews with the surviving soldiers and pictures from their time served.
HBO broke ground with its Apollo mini-series “From the Earth to the Moon,” assembling an all-star cast to tell the NASA shuttle stories Tom Hanks knows so well. “Band of Brothers” also brings viewers to a different time – a time when some ashamed young men actually took their own lives when they were deemed 4F, unfit for military service. Produced before Sept. 11, Hanks and Spielberg had no ulterior motives for their production besides honoring a group of men who would never dare call themselves heroes, but deserve to be so identified by others.