Seventeen years ago on September 9, 2001, a documentary-like mini-series tribute to D-Day and to WWII, Band of Brothers, aired its two first episodes. Two days later that same year the world turned upside down. It was very difficult for any entertainment to be very entertaining in the days after September 11, 2001. If there were people who looked at ratings, advertising revenue, critical reviews and other such metrics to gauge the success of a series, chances are that they, like the rest of us, were distracted by other headlines. On this anniversary, I wanted to examine how Band of Brothers was perceived by critics, before and after September 11, 2001.
I didn’t see Band of Brothers when it first aired, so this is very much a journey of my imagination and memories of the days before and after September 11.
Imagine, if you can, that Sunday evening, 9/9/01.
You were possibly gearing up for school the next day or work, then settling in for some relaxed Sunday night viewing.
Oh, look, HBO is starting a mini-series put together by the same guys who did Saving Private Ryan: Spielberg and Hanks. Clips show a cadre of handsome and lithe young men, authentically and impeccably uniformed, all of them the epitome of the sons of Middle America. You don’t recognize any of the faces but all of that youth, those guileless, unassuming looks, seem to indicate watching will be easy.
The clips cut to staccato thunderous gunfire, then parachutes wafting over Normandy. Maybe the clips then cut to some moments of tragedy, then to filial hijinks and camaraderie, maybe the guys exchange a couple laughs, maybe a few of them meet a girl or two along the way, European girls waving American flags and distributing easy kisses. The clip may pan to the boys’ faces when they find their first concentration camp and ultimately to them gazing at a panoramic shot of the Austrian Alps. Cinematography of the series seems to be quintessential Spielberg, every shot perfectly framed, focused just where it should be.
Looks like a good way to spend a Sunday night!
You tune in, and the series opens like a documentary with interviews of actual WWII veterans. Unidentified older men with eyes misted over with memories of their exploits. You learn from them and from the first few scenes of the actors playing them as younger men that what you are about to witness is a military exercise never before attempted in battle. One of the veterans shares his first impression:
Airborne? What the hell is that?
You also learn the “why” they all shared: because we were attacked. Another of the veterans says:
Our country was attacked…it was different. Maybe we’re just dumb country people where I come from, but a lot of us volunteered.
I did things…not for medals or accolades…but because it was something that had to be done.
The scene has been set. These fresh young men with their fresh young faces are going to partake in a fresh new way to do war. And they are going to do so with all they possess in body and spirit, believing across the board, every man down the line, that they are doing what has to be done. The greatest generation, without exception, united in one cause. And you already know the way it ends: These boys are going to save the world.
San Francisco Chronicle said in a Sept 7, 2001 review “Spielberg-Hanks miniseries portrays fury of combat minus the clichés”. The critic remarked that since there are no elaborate back stories, we never really get to know any of the men in detail. The soldiers are uniformly anonymous, and, so the real lead in the series is the war itself.
No TV entertainment program has shown combat in such terrifyingly realistic and lethal terms, or so accurately depicted its frantic chaos.
The New York Times also spoke of the interchangeability of the cast members, but, in the end…
when the real Easy Company veterans are identified — some are characters we have seen develop on screen, including Mr. Winters — we are eager to know who’s who, a sign of how engaging and lifelike the drama has become.
This same NYT critic, who lamented the absence of back story, nonetheless found something grounding in Damian Lewis’ depiction of Dick Winters. How fun it is to read early reviews of an actor who we all now know so well. He turned heads from the start. She said:
Even in the floundering first episode, though, the central character, Dick Winters, is a quietly compelling presence, played by the English actor Damian Lewis with a perfect American accent and a star-making command of every scene. Winters begins as a member of Easy Company, becomes its commanding officer and later oversees it as a battalion officer. More important, he holds the series together.
Most of the reviews of the series before September 11 remarked on the same points: lack of narrative depth or plot as both a negative, but also a positive in that underdeveloped personal stories leave all the more room for examining the real costs of war on these men. There isn’t the conventional war story arc of innocent boys, with their innocence lost, concluding in a tidy redemption compacted into a 2-hour big screen event.
Instead, Band of Brothers is giving us 10 episodes, told from different viewpoints, with different members of Easy Company in focus in each episode. Instead of a steadily climbing and rapidly descending arc, it’s providing a static trajectory of what it takes to be courageous, what it takes to stand up to something with all your heart. So what if someone lost a girlfriend or didn’t get to write enough letters to his mom, what these men were doing was bigger than all of that.
So how did the reviews and perceptions of the series change after September 11?
Imagine the roars of the airplanes taking off from England in the late evening to reach France in the dark of night, hit by fire as soon as they got there, fuselages split in two, others hit and floating slowly down into a fireball cut into the French countryside; sounds and images that must have taken on a vastly new and reversed significance in the days after September 11.
The equipment used in such a militarily brilliant way to achieve victory over evil in WWII, had, on September 11, been upended into tools of destruction. And innocent civilians, not volunteering soldiers, forcibly requisitioned into that destruction.
Discussions of war vs. terrorism weren’t yet in the nation’s mind or vocabulary. What we all saw as a common denominator between the first episodes of Band of Brothers and the events of September 11 was airplanes and lots of death. I wonder how many of you were able to continue watching? I imagine I would not have been able to, at least in those first weeks after that Tuesday.
In a discussion of how our perception of tragedy would change after 9/11, this reviewer remarked:
Now I understand the urgent patriotism Steven Spielberg was trying to get across in ”Band of Brothers,” in retrospect the most prescient television program of the days before the attack.
In an article about the very first rumblings of war post-9/11, this journalist calls out the fact that the 101st would most likely be the first on the scene, just as their antecedents were in 1944:
Indeed, history suggests that the 101st, which specializes in riding to battle in Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters, escorted by sleek Apache gunships, will be among the first to go overseas if ground troops are needed for the United States war on terrorism…The Screaming Eagles, as the 101st is known, helped storm Normandy in 1944, and the exploits of its Easy Company are celebrated in the Stephen E. Ambrose book and HBO series ”Band of Brothers.”
We learn that soldiers in training watched the series in preparation for their deployments. A husband and wife in Arkansas “…had been watching ”Band of Brothers,” the HBO series about the exploits of the 101st Airborne Division in Europe in World War II. ”He loves it, seeing all the tactics, and it has really helped him,” she said. ”He knows from watching it he can’t be afraid.””
Another article spoke of the difficulty in a creative depiction of war post 9/11, now that war had transitioned from its place on the History Channel to more of a real world real time reality:
One result is that — apart from the epic HBO mini-series ”Band of Brothers,” which began its run two days before the terrorist attacks — what promised to be a season of dramas involving men in uniform has been overtaken by events, illustrating the unease that film and television storytellers are feeling as they struggle to divine the nation’s roiling mood.
Another puts our “fetishization” of WWII in perspective as it affirms the high point in depiction of war achieved by Band of Brothers:
Our desire for vicarious battle… also explains the fetishization of World War II. This week everyone has been comparing Tuesday’s events to Pearl Harbor, but only two months ago Pearl Harbor had been sanitized as ”Pearl Harbor.” In that Hollywood version of the attack, seen by countless teenagers who may now have to fight an actual war, the enemy seems polite, the violence looks like the digitalized carnage of video games, and a harrowing American defeat gets an upbeat ”victory” coda that minimizes and vastly shortens the ensuing years of hardship, loss and heroism that were required for the Allies to win a war… At the high end … is HBO’s brand new series, ”Band of Brothers,” whose relentlessly publicized premiere preceded this week’s tragedy. ”There was a time when the world asked ordinary men to do extraordinary things,” went the ad copy, which took pains to remind us that the miniseries was ”based on the true story.” In a way, the pitch enshrines the complacency of the day before Tuesday, with its assumption that the prospect of civilians having to make any kind of extraordinary effort for a national good was as far in the past as the knights of the Round Table.
Band of Brothers seems to have been one of the very few representation of warfare that stood the test put to all of us on September 11, the test of what we could bear to watch next to what we were absolutely obligated to watch and remember. Of course, things changed drastically as we moved further away from those first few united and uniting days after 9/11. Those in power took the nation to what turned out to be a perpetual war against an enemy no one had defined. Even as circumstances of post-9/11 war differ radically from the circumstance retold in Band of Brothers, one thing remains the same: war is real and lethal and chaotic and comes at an extraordinary cost to a nation’s sons and daughters.