Band of Brothers was released in 2001, and the 10-episode HBO miniseries has either gained a reputation as one of the best pop culture takes on war ever created or has been completely forgotten ... depending on who you talk to.
My friends and I have been re-watching the show — it’s the first time for one of us — at a pace of one episode per week. The attraction is easy to explain: We’re watching a uniquely unqualified and ignorant reality star destabilize the world in real time, and the uncertainty of that situation makes World War II entertainment, ironically enough, somewhat of a comfort. This was an era of American history where we both know we won conclusively and it’s easy to cast ourselves as the “good guys.”
An informal polling of friends and colleagues has hinted that I’m not alone in my return to Band of Brothers, and HBO’s streaming services make it easier than ever to access the show. But how does it hold up in 2017, an era of prestige television and Netflix?
Band of Brothers was ahead of its time
The first episode of Band of Brothers doesn’t do the best job of explaining who these men are before playing with the timeline. The show begins with a series of old men, clearly veterans, talking about the war, before going back in time to Easy Company preparing for its first combat drop.
The drop is postponed, and the show goes back in time yet again to show us their training under the brutal but inept Captain Sobel. By the end of that first episode, which goes comfortably over an hour in length, the show has caught up with itself as the men fly toward Normandy.
The number of time jumps and the unconventional structure — you were expected to be comfortable learning who these men were over the course of the first few episodes — has become common in serial television, to the point where many viewers saw the trick coming in Westworld, but it was a relative rarity back in 2001.
The cast of Band of Brothers, which includes just about every male actor working at the time, has only become more recognizable and relatable. Sobel is played by David Schwimmer, who manages to combine a sense of efficient brutality with a level of puppy-eyed cluelessness that would be pitiable if it weren’t so dangerous in combat.
Schwimmer was three years away from the finale of Friends and was, at the time, likely the biggest star of the production. His character is also removed from command of Easy Company before the end of the first episode.
Band of Brothers is also interesting in that it cemented the Saving Private Ryan aesthetic of war films through extensive color grading, a process that was first done in all-digital manner in 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou. Spielberg and company achieved the look of Saving Private Ryan through manipulation of the film processing itself, while Band of Brothers took those visual ideas and expanded on them using the power of digital manipulation.
It’s an interesting approach to the material, one that we take for granted now, in that it doesn’t strive to show the world as it was at the time, but seeks to mimic the look of something that was filmed using what would have been, at the time, modern equipment used in trying circumstances. This style of coloring is used to recreate a memory, not a moment.
Using 10 hours to show the full horrors of a five-year war is impossible, but by following a single company across its European battles we are given a sense of an impossibly huge conflict as seen through the eyes of real people. Stephen Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers is just as good, and reading the book while watching the show will provide much more meaning to both experiences.
Band of Brothers is just as good today, and in many ways it’s operating as a kind of comfort food for those of us who are watching our country unravel in the pursuit of ... something. More money for a few people, I guess. Watching acts of bravery take place during a war in which we were unquestionably doing the right thing by stopping the spread of fascism feels necessary in a time when many question whether punching a Nazi is going too far.