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Do whatever it takes to see HBO's stunning "Band of Brothers."

Bloody Ground

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"Saving Private Ryan" was the perfect warm-up exercise for Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

I say that because "Band of Brothers," their 10-part miniseries debuting this month on HBO, is far better. If "Saving Private Ryan" was gold, "Band of Brothers" is pure, shining platinum.

Hanks and Spielberg, who teamed up for "Saving Private Ryan," planned independently to work next on separate war movies. Instead, they decided to team up as executive producers for "Band of Brothers." The miniseries is based on Stephen Ambrose's first-rate novel of the same name, which follows the elite men of Easy Company of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.

The miniseries begins with their rigorous training in Georgia and continues through their D-Day parachute drop into France, their ferocious and bloody participation in the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Market-Garden, and their eventual capture of Berchtesgaden and Hitler's Eagle's Nest. Easy Company had some of the roughest assignments of World War II.

They've been called the greatest rifle company that ever was. Their agonizing experiences instilled in them a closeness rarely seen among men outside combat. That boon companionship was the genesis of the title, which is from Shakespeare's "Henry V." The king is addressing his men before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother."

By the end of the war, Easy Company had shed a lot of blood. The company's casualty rate reached 150 percent.

Easy Company's story as told in "Band of Brothers" is awe-inspiring on every front. The writing and directing soar with a compelling richness that draws the audience into every scene. Spielberg and Hanks wisely allowed Easy Company to be the center of attention, and few in the excellent ensemble cast have familiar faces.

The filmmaking "language" they chose for combat scenes — handheld cameras, shaking point-of-view images and an archival washed-out look achieved through a slight overexposure of the film stock — provides an emotional, grunt's-eye view of war. And the special effects, from the horrifying hell of a German bombardment that descends on Easy Company at Bastogne to the gut-wrenching sight of a soldier being literally blown out of his boots in a French village, offer a take on war that will make you weep for all those who have had to experience it.

"It's exactly like it was when we were there," said one Easy Company veteran following a screening of the miniseries. Praise for a war movie doesn't come any higher.

Because the series is such a perfect ensemble piece — 500 actors have speaking roles — no single actor stands out. But several turn in performances worthy of special note. Damian Lewis wears command as comfortably as he wears his officer's insignia in the role of Lt. Winters, who served with the company from its formation in 1942. Ron Livingston plays Nixon, who also joined the company when it was new, and eloquently expresses everyman's frustration and anguish in warfare. Marc Warren plays Lt. Blithe, who has difficulty surviving the terror of combat, with a soul-searing vulnerability. And Shane Taylor plays medic Eugene Roe during the Battle of the Bulge with a convincing shell-shocked exhaustion and an equally powerful determination to keep on doing his job and save lives.

"Band of Brothers" is a powerful drama. It keeps its audience tumbling along as it details the simultaneous incongruities, absurdities, horrors and fears of war with a lucidity and vivid reality never before seen in dramatic fiction.

It's the best thing I've ever seen on TV, and it's probably the best thing I've ever seen, period. S



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