Boys in the Band

Photo: David James/HBO

They smoke, so already you know that Band of Brothers is not going to be another Pearl Harbor. And for ten whole hours there is almost no sex, an amazing marathon of abstinence for premium cable – meaning, of course, that they have to rely on lots more violence to fill in the narrative blanks. Besides which, and this is flabbergasting for a motion-picture production about the European theater in World War II, the camera does not ogle Nazi regalia. While much will be made of souvenir-hunting for a German Luger, Band of Brothers otherwise abjures the pornography of swastikas, leatherboys, and monumental space.

Stephen E. Ambrose wrote the best-selling nonfiction book about Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, on which the mini-series is based. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg are the executive producers; various old hands have written and directed individual episodes. And except for David Schwimmer from Friends, who plays the least-likable lieutenant in anybody’s army, the brothers themselves are either unfamiliar or unknown actors playing the parts of real people using their real names. Their brotherhood, in case you’ve forgotten, has been borrowed from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother.”

These happen to be lines – vainglorious and posturing – that I have never admired. But I like the mini-series, which is neither, almost as much as Tom Brokaw will. To be sure, Easy Company was self-selected for unusual courage, consisting entirely of volunteer paratroopers. We follow these young men, most of them not old enough to vote, from training in Toccoa, Georgia, in 1942, to their nightmare drop behind enemy lines on D-Day, June 6, 1944, to Carentan for their first serious casualties, to German-occupied Holland and Operation Market-Garden for their first stalled offensive, to the Ardennes Forest and their holding of Bastogne until Patton arrives with his publicists, to Foy, and Alsace, and their first concentration camp, and then Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s Bavarian cuckoo clock of a town, and finally to Austria, where they have to wait around for months, listening to Mozart and shooting one another, to find out if they are to be shipped out to the Pacific.

And yes, as in Chekhov, the Luger that shows up in the third hour will go off in the sixth and still be around in the ninth, like a symbol whose meaning shifts. Like the young men themselves, who make up their meanings as they go along and who resent the replacements who are innocent of those meanings, who haven’t been baptized in fraternal blood. This isn’t glory; it has a deeper hum.

If there must be a single heroic consciousness to hold all of this weather, geography, and death in mind, then it belongs to Damian Lewis as Lieutenant Winters, a junior officer who will rise to company commander, and then battalion executive. His are the thoughts we are listening to in the voice-overs, which turn up in several installments. But as the action shifts, so does the point of view, so that we are eavesdropping through the ranks and on hand with excruciating intimacy for occasions of superb bravery, blubbering cowardice, sudden death, confusion and panic – even war crimes. As powerful as the death-camp episode is, there is an equally moving scene in a church, where the camera pans the faces of all the men of Easy Company we have come to know as they sit in pews listening to the music of redemption, and then, as if by sniper fire, the dead are made to vanish from their seats.

Before and sometimes after every episode, we also hear from the survivors, talking heads at an advanced age, looking back more than half a century at what they did when they were strangers to almost everything. “We’re paratroopers,” someone says. “We’re supposed to be surrounded.” In Paris, they didn’t know how to order food. In the Vienna woods, they couldn’t bring themselves to shoot a deer.

TV Notes

Greta Garbo: A Lone Star (September 4; 10 to 11 p.m.; AMC) is everything you really didn’t need to know about her, including the lesbian affair with socialite Mercedes de Acosta, plus redeeming narration by Lauren Bacall and terrific snippets from Anna Karenina, Mata Hari, Grand Hotel, and Camille.

Lost (September 5; 8 to 9 p.m.; NBC) rounds up three teams of two persons each – all of whom should get a life – then blindfolds and ships them off to parts unknown (I know, but promised not to tell) by airplane and military chopper, dumps them in this wilderness without credit cards or cell phones, and promises them $200,000 if they get back to the Statue of Liberty. Whoopee.

The Amazing Race (September 5; 9 to 10 p.m.; CBS) rounds up eleven teams of two persons each (a mother-and-daughter pair, lawyer buddies, fraternity brothers,etc.) and makes them race to get from Central Park to places like Johannesburg – which is not the best way to see Africa, if you ask me, but I eliminated myself after the first hour.

Revenge of the Whale (September 7; 8 to 10 p.m.; NBC) is a News Division documentary, based on a Nathaniel Philbrick nonfiction book augmented with the diaries of three survivors, about the 1820 sinking of the whale ship Essex, which led to murder and cannibalism at sea and inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick. Very public television.

The Ghosts of Attica (September 9; 9 to 11 p.m.; Court TV) commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of the prison riot, the state-police massacre of prisoners and hostages alike, the subsequent cover-up of these events and the torture of prisoners that followed, a lawsuit for damages that took years to make its way through the reluctant courts, and now legal actions on behalf of the families of the slain hostages who got nothing but workman’s compensation. Awful footage I’ve never seen before.

Just Ask My Children (September 10; 9 to 11 p.m.; Lifetime) docudramatizes the false arrest and disgraceful imprisonment for twelve years of parents (played by Virginia Madsen and Jeffrey Nordling) accused of molesting their own children in the eighties Sex-Ring Hysteria. We are still catching up with these runaway miscarriages of justice.

Band of Brothers
Sunday, September 9, 9 to 11 p.m.; Sundays thereafter through November 4, 9 to 10 p.m.; HBO.

Boys in the Band