Friday, December 7, 2012


I probably watched this every year from the moment it became a staple of TV programming around the beginning of December - those "movie events" that the networks would advertise as if it were a really big deal that a movie, a real movie made for a lot of money with stars that showed in theatres and everything, was actually going to be on your TV! On Saturday night! Brought to you by Ford!

Sure it's a bit plodding, and the battleships look like miniatures, and it's lit like every interior scene happens in rooms that they just happen to test klieg lights in, just behind the camera. It was made barely thirty years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but everyone involved - many of whom probably fought in the war - thought it a fine idea to ask the Japanese to get involved, and even direct the scenes showing their part of the attack themselves, in a way that gives them actual dignity and human culpability. Next to the Marshall Plan, it might just have been one of the most magnanimous gestures a victor has shown the defeated.

Along with Patton and The World At War, Tora! Tora! Tora! taught me nearly everything I knew about the war my father and his brothers fought in, at least until I was allowed into the adult half of the library. We knew how it was going to end, but we still watched it with the hope that, maybe, someone would pick up the phone or get the telegram in time or figure out what that big signature on the radar screen was, but every time it ended with So Yamamura as Admiral Yamamoto intoning his grave fear that maybe they'd bit off more than they could chew, while the camera dissolved to the Pacific Fleet in flames (in miniature.)

I know I'm not the only person who's complained that popular culture - and movies in particular - have gotten much worse in the course of my lifetime, but when you're asked to give an example, it's almost as if there are too many. It's like somebody is asking you why you're making such a big deal about some giant radioactive lizard destroying your city, as they stand with their back to the crushed tower blocks and jets of fire and sparking high tension wires and Godzilla roaring away, rolling their eyes at your hysterical overreaction.

If I needed an example, though, it's worth pointing out that, just thirty years after they released Tora! Tora! Tora!, Hollywood made this:

Instead of Kimmel and Stimson and Genda and Halsey and Nomura, we got an insipid love triangle, historical figures played by a collection of prosthetics, and hypertrophied special effects that made you miss the toy boats in the big swimming pool. It's not like the actual war wasn't dramatic enough - the people behind this hideousness needed to make shit up, with that witless, Gump-like strategy of imagining that the same two fighter pilots who got their planes into the air and fought back on December 7th made sure they were flying Doolittle's bombers for some payback.

Thirty years after Pearl Harbor, men and women who lived through the actual war were confident enough in their ultimately victorious cause to show their side at the lowest ebb of defeat, prostrate after a humiliating surprise attack. Thirty years after that, people who'd only lived through Tora! Tora! Tora! thought it would play much better if they added another act and an extra hour to imagine what was really only a preemptive gesture as both historically apt and dramatically satisfying. It's no wonder that, having been subject to another ambush, in the opening years of a war that will probably be fought for generations, so many people have either decided to either pretend it's not happening or preemptively prepare to surrender.

There's a part of me that wonders, as I try to figure out why the movies - and the culture - have gotten so much worse, whether it's just the people who make the culture who are to blame. Maybe, just maybe, it's also the people who watch them.

Buy it on

Buy it on
On second thought, don't - it only encourages them.
UPDATE: Welcome PJTV readers - thanks, Ed!

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