Top positive review
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Really rather good
on 16 October 2016
Set during the muddy bloody campaign in the Hürtgen Forest, which preceded the much more widely known Ardennes offensive (aka the 'Battle of the Bulge), this HBO NYC made for TV movie benefits from a production style not a million miles from HBO's big budget war-series hits Band of Brothers and Pacific. That style is gritty and dour, and not at all shy of depicting the grimmer side of war.
The story starts with the central character, private Manning, bringing back a wounded buddy. It soon transpires that Manning is the sole survivor of his platoon. Against a backdrop of his own fatigue and reluctance to take on responsibility, augmented by accusations of cowardice, he nevertheless finds himself promoted to sergeant.
In his new role he's given charge of a squad of fresh-faced replacements. Their first patrol, whilst not disastrous, very nearly goes badly wrong, and not long after this a general assault begins, drawing the rookie recruits into the maelstrom of war. The combat sequences are superbly done, and the actors do a good job of conveying the bewildering disorienting effects of suddenly facing battle.
Manning ends up, somewhat against his wishes - he's angling for a 'section 8' discharge - leading an important tactical raid on a German gun emplacement that's been making mincemeat of his mother unit as it seeks to take and secure a bridge. All the while the uneasy ambivalence between bravery and cowardice continues to simmer.
As well as tackling how both replacements and veterans cope with the high levels of stress, reactions ranging from coolly matter of fact to gung-ho or just losing it, the film also addresses the issues of power hierarchies, command, obedience, etc.
All these themes come to a head in an interesting finale, which I'll refrain from describing, but which utilises a clever and (I think) very successful narrative ploy to show both the self-perpetuating nature of conflict, and its grimly relentless and seemingly pointless costs.