EXCLUSIVE: “We halted for two weeks, then continued, providing a sobering tonic, I think,” says Tom Hanks of the debut of the acclaimed Band of Brothers in 2001 and the terror attacks of 9/11 that followed two days later.
Long a custodian of nation’s better angels and a chronicler of our everyday heroes, it is almost impossible now to think of the leap the multiple Oscar winner and miniseries co-creator Steven Spielberg took with HBO 20 years ago. Ushering in the era of what became known as “Prestige TV,” the 10-episode World War II drama based on historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s 1992 best seller of the same name also proved a bracer to an America battered by seeing four commercial airliners were turned into fatal missiles by 19 Al-Qaeda members.
Today a Band of Brothers podcast debuted to examine the legacy of the tale of “Easy Company,” 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the Emmy winning show their endeavors spawned.
In that context Hanks, now overseas filming and who is featured on the first episode of the Roger Bennett-hosted podcast, spoke with me about Band of Brothers, 9/11 two decades later and that sometimes overlooked notion of the common good.
DEADLINE: With the 20th anniversary of the horrible attacks of 9/11 coming soon after the 20th anniversary of Band of Brothers’ debut, plus the end of the so-called forever war in Afghanistan, what resonance do you think the miniseries you co-created has in today’s America?
HANKS: The key word of the title is “Brothers.” I think the resonance of the series comes from the sense of ‘Us,’ that we are all in this together and the primary, instinctive duty is to look after our brothers. A unit – like Easy Company – stands alone, together.
DEADLINE: As last year’s Greyhound and many other films in your career have made clear, the Second World War and the men and women who fought in that great battle for freedom keep attracting you over and over. As you look back on the legacy of Band of Brothers and your other work, has that resonance changed for you as time has passed?
HANKS: What the era of WWII calls for is the now unique idea that the way to deal with the stasis of any long struggle is to work for the common good. Sacrificing comforts and putting our desires on hold for the duration of the conflict.
Twenty years after the series — 75 years after the World War — we face global issues that are, face it, contests between life and death, freedom and subservience, the common good rather than chaos. It’s 2021, and what else is going on but those same contests?
DEADLINE: As was mentioned in the piece Deadline did on the Band of Brothers podcast last week, there is only one member of Easy Company still alive today which is Col. Edward Shames. What importance does a show like Band Of Brothers play in our collective history for you as we lose these heroes?
HANKS: If the series fails to show that the human condition then is the exact same now as then, we’ve failed the mission. Boys then went off to save the world — in vast numbers — with no idea of when the war would end. Ed Shames — and every man of Easy Company — volunteered for the work. Time calls for such volunteers, such heroes, every few weeks, in every era. With just one decision, each of us has heroism inside us.
DEADLINE: Band of Brothers is widely viewed as one of the originators of what came to be called “Prestige TV.” What does that perspective mean to you looking back over 20 years?
HANKS: Jeff Bewkes (then HBO CEO) agreed to our budget – which was HUGE – as well as our need for a bigger screen aspect ratio by saying, “We might as well. This is the last time we’ll ever be able to do something like this.” An expensive miniseries was going to be an anachronism. But Chris Albrecht and HBO went on to prove that quality and can-they-do-that-on- television??? draws the audience no matter the costs.
DEADLINE: Historical accuracy was a big part of Band of Brothers. I know you, Steven and others involved in the production went far beyond Ambrose’s book to learn more about the men, their lives and times. What was the greatest revelation that additional research brought to light for you?
HANKS: The anecdotal details of behavior and procedure are more important than sticking to story-story-story. The overview of the story becomes one with the moments of character — of what movie was playing when the call came to load up for the Bbattle of the Bulge. Cap. Lewis Nixon (played by Ron Livingston in the miniseries) screamed at the German POWs and their horse-drawn artillery for being so stupid as to take on the nation of General Motors. That an artillery battle in the distance is as beautiful as 4th of July fireworks.
DEADLINE: Band of Brothers had a unique format in that it told an epic tale but each of the 10 episodes themselves mainly focused on one individual. Why did you take that approach and what do you think of it now?
HANKS: We followed Ambrose’s lead. We could have followed any one character for the entire series but what would we have missed?
DEADLINE: Lastly, as well as Band of Brothers’ 20th anniversary approaching, there is, as we discussed before, the 20th anniversary of 9/11 here now too. What does that latter occasion mean to you and what is the connection to you, if any, of the multi-award-winning miniseries that debuted on September 9, 2001 and the attacks that occurred two days later?
HANKS: We thought it quite possible that the broadcast of the series would be put on hold indefinitely, as it seemed WWIII had just broken out. Perhaps, the series would then be too simplistic, too jingoistic.
We halted for two weeks, then continued, providing a sobering tonic, I think.
America was again facing a long, unknowable struggle against an enemy that has been, unquestioningly, working for the dark side of humanity. The Nazis and the Japanese empire fought for dark reasons – of race, theology, of a domination of a status quo based on divisions by caste.
Where are we now, 20 years later? As Harry Truman said: “It is easier to remove tyrants and destroy concentration camps than it is to kill the ideas which gave them birth and strength.”