Deep into HBO's megabudget miniseries The Pacific, as Americans fight the Japanese in a gruesome battle to control tiny Peleliu island, a sensitive officer comforts a horrified young Marine, assuring him that the brutality is "worthwhile because our cause is just." It all seems so quaint: the idea that war is about controlling battlefields; the sentimental certainty that justice is on our side; and, most of all, the arrival of another old-fashioned World War II extravaganza that has no cultural resonance today. Post-9/11, well into the war on terror, we live in the age of Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's over-the-top tribute to—and takedown of—creaky combat dramas. With a film like Basterds slyly making up-to-the-minute assumptions about warfare today—it's about terrorism, not turf; ideology, not moral certainty—no wonder a bloated patriotic ode like The Pacific lands with a thud.
Historical movies always reflect two eras: the ones in which they are set and the ones in which they are made. Gone With the Wind may have been about the Civil War, but it relied on 1930s racial stereotypes, while its no-place-like-home message spoke to the country's isolationism. In the past eight years our assumptions about war have changed drastically; for a World War II movie to touch a nerve now it has to grapple with Iraq and Afghanistan, however unconsciously those themes register. In an illuminating recent interview with Tarantino, Rachel Maddow argued that his film—with its band of American soldiers who enjoy scalping Nazis, and Resistance fighters who plot to blow up a theater full of Nazis and kill themselves in the process—tells "the modern strategic history of Al Qaeda." That may be an overstatement, but it is essentially right about why the movie feels relevant and unsettling. The film redefines heroism, taking the concept beyond platitudes.
Far from such energizing topicality, The Pacific is nostalgic to its core. It was designed as a companion piece to Band of Brothers, the 2001 miniseries that followed Americans on the European front, and comes from the same starry producers, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. It's certainly big (at 10 parts and a cost approaching $200 million, it's HBO's most expensive gamble ever) and well crafted. Following the Band of Brothers model, The Pacific tracks several likable, conveniently varied characters based on real men: a thoughtful future journalist, an eager-to-fight Jersey boy, a sensitive Southern kid. There is grandiose, heart-swelling music and gut-wrenching, war-is-hell close-ups of combat. It's easy to be drawn into such high drama.
But Band of Brothers arrived on Sept. 9, 2001, and played out over the next months while the country was still in shock, when America was about to take action in Afghanistan and had not yet entered Iraq. In those confounding America-comes-together months, the series latched onto the momentum of Tom Brokaw's World War II hagiography The Greatest Generation and the Spielberg-Hanks movie Saving Private Ryan (both 1998). The Pacific inadvertently jolts us with reminders of newer wars, to which the Greatest Generation lessons don't apply.
The visual cues hit us in the first episode. As Marines trudge through the jungles of Guadalcanal, hoping to keep it out of Japanese hands, the scenes look startlingly like Vietnam, reminding us that recent combat—from Vietnam to Iraq—is not about capturing land, but about political philosophy, hearts and minds. We see plenty of maps in The Pacific that situate the action, but when an American commander stands in front of one, warning his troops that "the Japanese are in the process of taking half of the world," the image seems as antiquated as one of Washington crossing the Delaware. Heroic, sure, but resonant?
In today's age of jihadist enemies, even images of soldiers on dusty Iraqi roads and in Afghan villages lead to the conclusion that the real fight is ideological. The American offensive in Marja is not just about wresting that Afghan town from the Taliban. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the American commander, has painstakingly emphasized that the operation is about replacing the region's political leaders and winning over its people, saying, "This is all a war of perception."
That post-9/11 awareness explains why so many recent World War II movies have flopped, why Clint Eastwood's 2006 pair of mismatched films is more eye-opening now than ever. The freshness of Eastwood's small, acclaimed Letters From Iwo Jima holds up, and not simply because it assumes the perspective of Japanese soldiers. As the film considers the Japanese code of suicide, it begins to penetrate the mystery of a philosophy alien to American culture. The defeated Japanese who blow themselves up with grenades rather than surrender, the general who has lived in America and questions his own country's code of honor—these men echo with the suicide bombers who have become so common, yet remain so alien.
Flags of Our Fathers was Eastwood's splashy failure about the men who raised the American flag at Iwo Jima, then re-raised it to stage the famous photograph. You'd think that story would be in sync with a country still uneasy about the reasons for going to war in Iraq. Yet the film isn't really about that hot-button issue, the public-relations war. The soul of the movie is in the simplistic Band of Brothers sentiment that has the narrator tell us its heroes "fought for their country, but they died for their friends." Films such as Flags or The Pacific—or two other recent duds: the get-Hitler caper Valkyrie and the heavy-handed Jewish resistance drama Defiance—are the Hollywood equivalent of easy-listening patriotism.
Movies about current wars face their own problems: how to depict an ever-changing landscape, how to avoid polemicism. Oddly, The Hurt Locker, by far the most accomplished and apparently topical Iraq War movie to date, is built on a backward-looking little secret: the film appropriates old-fashioned Greatest Generation hero worship while blithely ignoring the urgent question of whether the war should be fought at all. As soldiers try to defuse bombs, Kathryn Bigelow's dazzling, edge-of-your-seat filmmaking doesn't pause to let you realize that suspense and bravery are everything here. The film, with its stock characters, is even hollower than The Pacific because the assumption of a "just cause" has vanished. Like the war in Vietnam, today's conflicts have so divided the country that no consensus is possible.
The Hurt Locker is an aberration, though, not the herald of an updated Greatest Generation. Few films about current wars will be able to pull off Bigelow's distracting sleight-of-mind, just as few directors will be able to reinvent the World War II genre as brilliantly or thoughtfully as Tarantino. Having seen two such astonishing war films in one year, how dreary to be facing The Pacific, which lumbers along like some aged aircraft carrier, too heavy and outdated to veer with the changing winds.