HBO's 2001 ten part mini-series, Band Of Brothers, which was executive produced by none other than Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, is a pretty epic achievement in storytelling. Rarely do television series tackle projects on this scale and it's efforts like this (alongside The Sopranos and the sorely missed Deadwood) that prove HBO is really a couple of steps ahead of the game as far as their programming is concerned.
For those who haven't checked the series out, it follows the men of the 506th regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, better known as Easy Company. The series begins in 1942 with their early training and allows us to get to know some of the players a little better by eavesdropping on conversations where they discuss their home life and what they did before they joined the army. From there, they ship off to Europe to aid the Allied war effort and eventually wind up parachuting into enemy territory as D-Day explodes around them and prior to the storming of the beach at Normandy. They eventually take Carentan, France back from the Nazis, liberate a concentration camp, and storm through the doors of Berchtesgarten before their tours of duty finish up in 1945.
The ten episodes that make up Band Of Brothers are presented as follows:
Disc One: Currahee / Day Of Days
Disc Two: Carentan / Replacements
Disc Three: Crossroads / Bastogne
Disc Four: The Breaking Point / The Last Patrol
Disc Five: Why We Fight / Points
While you could argue that maybe the series isn't one hundred percent historically accurate, it's got to be pretty damn close and the attention to detail evident in the sets, costumes, props, vehicles, and even the background music all come together to make for a very impressive and legitimate retelling of some incredible acts of human bravery. Visually the series is gorgeous in its own way - despite the fact that much of it plays out in a war zone, never the most attractive of places, there's such care evident in the way that the material is shot and lit that you can't help but be impressed by it all.
Also worth noting is the excellent ensemble cast that was put together for the production. Donnie Wahlberg, Ron Livingston, Neal McDonaugh, Damian Lewis, Scott Grimes and plenty of others all turn in excellent performances and do a good job with the material. Damian Lewis, in particular, has a lot of heavy lifting to do throughout the series as he's cast as Major Richard Winters, essentially Easy Company's leader, and it's fascinating to watch his character evolve throughout the series. As Winters develops, we're able to understand how he could convince his men to follow him into battle as Lewis performance is that convincing. It's also interesting watch how these men evolve not only as soldiers but as friends. As they realize that their lives depend on one another, it makes sense that they would of course begin to respect and appreciate each other more as their circumstances dictate that they really have no choice. These relationships form a core part of what makes Band Of Brothers an interesting series to watch from a dramatic perspective and it's obvious that a lot of thought was put into the writing of the series (which was based on the book by author Stephan Ambrose). In the hands of this very capable cast the dialogue always flows naturally and fits the situations and the characters that populate those situations quite effectively.
Though it can be tough to remember who is who (a legitimate complain levied against the series by some viewers), the cast deliver believable and very sincere performances, even the generally hokey David Schwimmer (yes, the same David Schwimmer from Friends), throughout the series and all involved show some serious range. Those expecting John Wayne style determination in their WWII soldiers will walk away surprised by the humanity injected into the core players that make up Easy Company as the series plays out.
As good as the cast is, it's hard for them to not fall under the shadow of the combat scenes from time to time. The battles are as exciting and explosive as they are hard hitting and dramatic and they go a long way towards capturing what it must have been like to have to serve your country under such chaotic circumstances and under such harsh conditions. You really feel for the soldiers during these scenes and the cinematography helps pull you into the material. There's a fair bit of handheld camera work here, something that can tend to get dizzying after longer spats, but it's hard to imagine the series shot any other way and it certainly proves to be an effective way of relaying to the audience how frightening and completely insane it must have been to survive some of these fights.
Despite a couple of problems keeping various characters straight, Band Of Brothers stands tall as a very fitting tribute to a group of men who put their lives on the line to make a difference in the world. It's a dramatic tale of human bravery of the highest order and it makes for compelling viewing. It's wonderfully directed, it's exciting, it's intense and it's generally quite fascinating look back at a very important part of world history and those who changed it for the better. Fully deserving of the Golden Globe and Emmy Awards that it won in 2001, the series should be considered required viewing for anyone with an interesting in the history of the era or anyone who just enjoys well made television in general.
Band Of Brothers looks excellent in this VC-1 encoded1080p 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. While the gritty look of the picture might irk those wanting pristine visuals, the look of the series transfers very well to HD with excellent and very natural color reproduction and plenty of detail evident in every frame. Skin tones look lifelike and natural and there aren't any obvious issues with mpeg compression artifacts (save for a couple of the more intense handheld scenes) or heavy digital noise. Edge enhancement is never a problem nor are there any issues with shimmering or aliasing worth writing about. This isn't the type of transfer that pops off of your screen as the content uses a very 'earth tone' centered color palette. What this means is that most of the image is made up of green, brown, grey, and darker and flatter looking colors but in the context of the story and the setting that it all takes place in, things really do look great. There's a lot of detail to enjoy, particularly in the close ups, but also in the backgrounds and you really get a sense of just how much effort went into the costumes and set design for this production when you get a chance to check it out in high definition. All in all, an excellent effort as far as the transfer is concerned.
The primary audio mix supplied on this release is an English language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix but standard definition tracks are provided in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mixes while subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Brazilian while closed captions appear in English only (for the feature only).
So how does the audio shape up? Thankfully, it's just as good as the video presentation. The combat scenes are incredibly lively and active with excellent use made out of the rear channels where attentive listeners will notice all manner of ambient and background effects. Explosions pack a very serious punch, as go gunshots, and the battle scenes definitely make your subwoofer work overtime to provide rock solid bass response without overshadowing the dialogue. This mix is very well thought out ensuring that the quieter moments are nice and relaxed while the action scenes sound just as intense and chaotic as they need to. This is reference quality material, DTS-HD mix is fantastic.
The biggest and best of the extra features in this collection arrives in the form of the eighty minute feature length documentary, We Stand Alone Together: The Men Of Easy Company (HD). Much more than a standard look back at the events that inspired the series, this excellent documentary allows the actual men who inspired this story to tell their tales and look back on their time in the service. Plenty of great archival photographs and film and video clips are used to illustrate various points and add some visual interest to the production and this winds up a fascinating and at times quite touching and emotional look at the horrors of war.
Also included is a thirty-minute featurette entitled Making Of Band Of Brothers (SD) where we get a look behind the scenes at the work that went into creating the costumes, sets and props for the series. We get to spend some time with the cast and watch as they work on their parts and we get to check out some decent behind the scenes material as well. The Premiere In Normandy (SD) is simply a quick, three-minute long look at the series premiere while Ron Livingston's Video Diaries (SD) is just short of an hour's worth of on set footage shot while the series was in production and which does a fine job of showing us what the cast and crew went through over the year and a half that it took to make this series.
Last but certainly not least, every one of the episodes includes an exclusive picture-in-picture commentary. These commentary tracks allow the actual surviving members of Easy Company to tell their stories about what it was like during their time in the service and to tell some interesting stories about their experiences in the military. Also included is an interactive field guide which presents a timeline explaining important events as each episode plays out. This makes for some pretty interesting viewing and helps to put the events that take place in the series into the ever important historical context. Here we're treated to biographical information for the various players, interactive maps, video clips, and more. The commentary and field guide make for a great way to learn more about the history behind this series and are absolutely worth checking out, particularly for military history buffs.
Also worth mentioning is the packaging for this release. The discs are housed inside a fold out booklet that keeps each disc on a plastic spindle. This fold out is in turn attached to the inside of a sturdy metal tin which contains the rather iconic looking cover art embossed on the front. It's quite a classy effort on the part of HBO.
Rarely is a series both as exciting and moving as this epic and impressively historically accurate production. Band Of Brothers has got action, excitement, intrigue and drama in spade and it makes for riveting viewing. HBO has pulled out all the stops on this release and supplied gorgeous video quality with fantastic audio and a wealth of interesting extra features. Highly recommended.