Monday, February 4, 2013

FILM REVIEW

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and Pearl Harbour (2001)

Over the next three days, I will be covering an international expo and conference on construction equipment and machinery in Mumbai. The mighty machines are good to look at and photograph. Meanwhile, here’s a review of two war films that Zero in on a common theme, for (not exactly) Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
— President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his Day of Infamy speech to a joint session of Congress, a day after Japan attacked the Pearl Harbour Naval Base in Hawaii.

Tora means Tiger in Japanese but here
it alludes to a torpedo attack.
Tora! Tora! Tora! is a realistic docudrama about the events before, during and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. In contrast, Pearl Harbour is a love story dramatised around the events of that fateful day.

I saw veteran director Richard Fleischer's Tora! Tora! Tora! some 30 years ago, in an old, rundown cinema hall called El Dorado in the tourist haven of Goa, on the west coast of India. Except for one scene, I don’t remember anything about this film. In that scene a Japanese torpedo snakes its way just beneath the earth, past a tall tree, still standing, towards men and women who jump out of its explosive path. This could yet be a sketchy recollection. I need to eat almonds.

I certainly don't remember the roles played by the fine cast of Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotten, James Whitmore, and Jason Robards. But I do remember enjoying the film a lot.

Then, last evening, I watched the final leg of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour, which I had previously seen in two sessions (way I usually watch movies on television). The love tangle of Rafe (Ben Affleck), Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) on one hand and the Rafe-Danny friendship on the other does little to elevate the film even though the two related elements are the pivots around which the Japanese bombing of the Harbour takes place. The historical event, which forced America to enter the war, seems like happenstance.

What lifts Pearl Harbour above plot mediocrity is the special effects that make it a visually stunning film, in particular the destruction of the naval base and the US Pacific Fleet by modified torpedoes dropped from the air. In one memorable scene, a warship is shown tilting on its side before turning turtle and taking much of the crew with it. As we see in Titanic (1997), here too sailors slide down the broad deck of the ship and thrown overboard, into the burning sea.

A film like Pearl Harbour, with its historical import, does not require a review; a few observations will suffice. Here are some of mine…

1. I thought Jon Voight made a very good President Roosevelt in the wheelchair. The resemblance is striking. Voight’s FDR is shown smoking a cigarette though I haven’t seen pictures of the real New Deal president smoking one. I know he smoked.

2. One of the things that I don’t like about Hollywood films is the jingoism built into the plot of a film associated with war or an alien invasion. In this film, for instance, Rafe and Danny’s boss, Lt. Col. James Doolittle (Alec Baldwin), mouths lines to stir patriotic fervour among his motley crew of pilots flying to their death. I thought some of his lines were inane and served little purpose. But then, this is Pearl Harbour and America has a right to be super-patriotic. Towards the end Doolittle, Rafe, Danny and some of the survivors salute smartly in what I felt was an overdose of salutes.

The real General James Doolittle
Incidentally, General James Harold “Jimmy” Doolittle was an American aviation pioneer and a lieutenant colonel in the USAF during WWII. He was assigned to Army Air Forces HQ and led 16 B-25 bombers on a secret mission to bomb targets in Japan. Spencer Tracy also played Doolittle in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944).

3. Apparently, Baldwin’s portrayal of the distinguished general created a furore among those who knew Doolittle. I can partly see why. He appears out of sorts as the commander of a task force out to avenge the attack. He looks as if he is on a picnic. The depth and intensity of the character, in the backdrop of the horrific invasion, is missing. In fact, he looks little different from his character in It’s Complicated (2009) where he woos ex-wife Meryl Streep.

Alec Baldwin as Lt. Col. James Doolittle
4. Petty Officer Dorie Miller (Cuba Gooding Jr.) has a bit role in the film. In spite of graduating from the academy, he is assigned a cook’s job. When his ship is attacked and his mates fall around him, an enraged Miller grabs hold of an anti-aircraft gun and downs a couple of Zeros — “Yeesss!”

Of the three main actors, only Hartnett shows intensity of character. Affleck and Beckinsale are rather expressionless. Their ordinary love story apart, Pearl Harbour scores high for its historical value and special effects, as does Tora! Tora! Tora!

16 comments:

  1. I have seen Tora! Tora! Tora! relatively recently and enjoyed it very much. I know it may not have been totally true to the event but I like that kind of movie. If it was not so long, we would watch it more often. I never saw Pearl Harbor. Thought it was basically just a romance. I will be interested to see the comments here from persons more knowledgeable than I on the subject of the war and the movies.

    Hope you enjoy covering your expo.

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    1. Tracy, I have completely forgotten TORA! TORA! TORA! with only vague images flittering through my mind. I hope to watch the film again. I am looking forward to more informed comments on both these films too. I hope to have a good time at the expo held every two years. It's one of the areas my newspaper and news portal covers.

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  2. Great post Prashant - the Michael Bay movie is violently silly but does lok great while TORA is much more worthy but so dull - thanks for all the solid historical info, fascinating stuff. In many ways I think FROM HERE TO ENTERNITY, which not specifically about Pearl harbour, is the one that works the best in vonveying the time and place and weaving it into a good narrative.

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    1. Thanks very much, Sergio. I liked the way you compared the two versions that retell the story of Pearl Harbour. While one is pretty realisitic, the other is overtly dramatic. I thought TORA! TORA! TORA!, the little that I remember of it, to be entirely believable. I saw FROM HERE TO ENTERNITY a long time ago and would have to revisit the film to refresh my memory.

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  3. Seen both of these & prefer Tora Tora, found the other so much Hollywood waffle although as you state the effects part compensate for it.

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    1. Parrish Lantern, I couldn't agree more with you and that pretty much seems to be the general sentiment on this page and elsewhere. There's always a saving grace in most films. I guess it's special effects in PEARL HARBOUR.

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  4. Really liked Tora, Tora, Tora. Pearl harbor, not so much, though I did enjoy Kate Beckinsale

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    1. Charles, I am with you there. I thought the director would have done well if he had spared Pearl Harbour and only retained the love story.

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  5. I date myself from Pearl Harbor, since I was born only 2-3 weeks before it. I can't watch Alec Baldwin play anything serious; he is such a wonderful comic actor.

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    1. Ron, what a time to come into the world! I agree Baldwin is more of a comedian though I don't see that part of him either. He had a rather serious role as Jack Ryan in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER based on Tom Clancy's cold war thriller.

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  6. I haven't seen the Ben Affleck film, Prashant, primarily because of the inane love story interfering with world events thing. I think I kind of knew before even reading about the movie, how it would go. For me, special effects are not enough reason to see a movie.

    But I have loved TORA, TORA, TORA! since I first saw it many years ago. I own the DVD and watch it now and again and am always drawn into the story as if I were watching for the first time. What a terrific movie. The special effects ain't bad either.

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    1. Yvette, PEARL HARBOUR is no patch on TORA! TORA! TORA! which is, indeed, a "terrific" movie. PEARL HARBOUR meandered between a love story and the horrific events of December 1941 and got lost somewhere in between. I like Ben Affleck as an actor, especially as Matt Murdock or Daredevil, the Man Without fear. Lookwise, he fit the role perfectly.

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  7. My favorite war movies concern the Vietnam War. I think it produced a real fine batch.

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    1. Patti, I agree. I have seen a few Vietnam War films, the notable ones being THE KILLING FIELDS and PLATOON.

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  8. I saw Tora! Tora! Tora! as kid but probalby only because my older borther liked movies about war and I was trying to be like him for a while. Didn't work. Still don't like war movies unless they are adventures like The Great Escape. I have avoided Pearl Harbor because it was reviled by critics as a cheesy and lousy romance with little historical accuracy.

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    1. John, I enjoy watching war and western movies. THE GREAT ESCAPE is, in fact, one of my favourite war films. There are far better war movies than PEARL HARBOUR, John, so I don't think you are missing anything there. I remember critics panning the film which won just one Academy award.

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