Tora! Tora! Tora! (United States/Japan, 1970)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's rare for a feature film to attain the trifecta of entertaining, informing, and educating. Most motion pictures set against an historical backdrop inevitably bend the facts to fit their story. Unless the movie claims to be a documentary, this isn't necessarily a bad thing -- except when it is his stated goal to remain true to the historical record, a filmmaker need not feel constrained to adhere strictly to the established record. Some of cinema's greatest epics, including Gone with the Wind and Braveheart, play fast and loose with facts, and are perhaps the better for it. As long as movie-goers take care not to expect a history lesson from a film, deficiencies in historical accuracy should not be an issue.

Of course there are some rare productions that attain the holy grail of telling an involving story containing vital characters while remaining rigorously faithful to the historical record. It's a rare distinction, and reserved for the likes of (amongst others) Gettysburg, Apollo 13, A Night to Remember, and Tora! Tora! Tora! With the 2001 release of Pearl Harbor, the Jerry Bruckheimer big-budget re-telling of the "date that will live in infamy", Tora! Tora! Tora! is suddenly getting a lot of attention. As many viewers discovered A Night to Remember when James Cameron's Titanic began to make waves, so has Pearl Harbor dredged up interest in Richard Fleischer's 1970 effort.

Tora! Tora! Tora! is meticulous in its approach to dissecting the situation leading up to the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Whereas most movies about the war in the Pacific have a tendency to demonize the Japanese (in the same way that the majority of films about the European theater make the Germans unequivocal villains), Tora! Tora! Tora! elects to be even-handed, presenting both the Japanese and American sides of the story, and doing so without resorting to caricatures or cheap shots. The Japanese are not faceless bad guys, nor are the Americans presented as innocent, blameless victims.

As the film opens, Japan is about to sign a pact with Germany which will make them the third member of the Axis. Already, the army is clamoring for Japan to overrun Indo-China, even though it will erode already-shaky relations with the United States. More cautious members of the Japanese government urge a careful approach where America is concerned, recognizing that winning a war with the United States will be difficult at best, if not impossible. But the hotheads rule the day. The decision is made that the only way to keep America at bay is to stage a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The hope is to destroy the bulk of the Pacific fleet, including the aircraft carriers. With their air and naval power thus crippled, America will be a non-factor in the war in the Pacific. It is a gamble, and many within the Japanese chain of power are unsure about its consequences.

From the American perspective, the success of the Japanese attack is revealed to be a combination of bad luck, bureaucracy, and incompetence. Few people in the American military are willing to accept that the Japanese will have the audacity to attack, and, if an attack comes, they expect it to be somewhere other than Pearl Harbor - the Philippines, for example. The U.S. has cracked the Japanese secret code, but doesn't react quickly or effectively to messages indicating that an attack is imminent. High ranking officials are unavailable (December 7 is a Sunday), forcing junior officers to make decisions they are ill-prepared for. The radar station at Hawaii detects the incoming fleet of Japanese planes, but the operators are told to ignore it. The planes at the air base are clustered together to reduce the risk of their becoming the targets of saboteurs - this turns them into easy fodder for destruction by Japanese strafing runs. The only piece of good fortune for the Americans is that the aircraft carriers are not at Pearl Harbor when the attack comes - they are at sea. For the Japanese, this diminishes the success of the mission - their primary goal is to smash the United States' air and naval power in the Pacific, and that means destroying or crippling the aircraft carriers.

With its near documentary precision and careful attention to detail, Tora! Tora! Tora! is far more plot-centered than character-centered. In spite of the participation of several well known and respected performers, this is not an actors' movie. We get to know the characters well enough to understand something of what makes them tick, but not nearly enough to be able to empathize with them in a meaningful manner. Tora! Tora! Tora! is the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor, not an account of any person's role in that scenario.

There are three men who come close to having an individual impact. The first is Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Soh Yamamura), the conflicted overall commander of the Japanese fleet. It is his duty to carry out the attack on Pearl Harbor, but, having studied at Harvard, he believes his country is underestimating the Americans and sees Japan's bloodthirsty military as acting foolishly and presumptuously. The movie closes on his quote: "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." History, especially in the form of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would prove him to be tragically right.

Col. Rufus Bratton (E.G. Marshall) and Lt. Commander Alvin Kramer (Wesley Addy) are two of the select few who are privy to the secret decoding room where the Japanese messages are intercepted. Throughout Tora! Tora! Tora!, Bratton and Kramer become convinced that the Japanese are planning a massive attack, but, while their superiors pay lip service to the warnings, the two industrious men are largely ignored. The film spends a significant amount of time with Bratton and Kramer, illustrating that the United States had access to information that might have prevented the tragedy at Pearl Harbor, but did not use it.

In addition to E.G. Marshall, recognizable names and faces include Martin Balsam as Admiral Kimmel, Joseph Cotton as Secretary of War Henry Stimson, James Whitmore as Admiral William Halsey, and Jason Robards as Lt. Gen. Walter Short. In an interesting move, the filmmakers elected not to have an actor portray President Roosevelt. He remains a somewhat shadowy presence, always just off-camera (usually on the other end of a phone line).

One of the reasons Tora! Tora! Tora! offers such a balanced perspective of events is that it was produced almost as two separate films - one in Japan and one in the United States. The U.S. portion, which is accorded slightly more screen time, was directed by Richard Fleischer (Doctor Dolittle, Fantastic Voyage) and written by Larry Forrester, with all of the spoken parts in English. The Japanese segments were directed by Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda, and written by Ryuzo Kikushima and Hideo Oguni, with all of the spoken parts in Japanese. Ultimately, the two pieces were edited together chronologically, resulting in frequent switching back and forth. All of the Japanese sequences - roughly 40% of the film - are subtitled. One wonders whether subtitle-phobic American audiences today would have the stomach for so much reading.

The final forty-five minutes of Tora! Tora! Tora! depict the actual attack on Pearl Harbor, and the verisimilitude is striking, especially considering the infant state of special effects in 1970. The spectacle is impressive (although perhaps not as stunning as the computer-enhanced destruction of Pearl Harbor) - we never for a moment doubt that we're watching the actual massive air strike and the resulting chaos and disaster as ships sink and planes are blasted into oblivion on runways before takeoff. The only slightly cheesy looking shot is of an underwater submarine. Other than that, the film's visual look is as mature as one might expect from something made many years later.

The key to Tora! Tora! Tora!'s success is that it's consistently absorbing, even at a length of nearly 2 1/2 hours. This is a rare case when history is brought vividly to life without the need to add fictional characters or to embellish what actually happened. The story of the attack on Pearl Harbor is fascinating in its own right; in fact, if presented as a piece of fiction, critics might comment that the narrative was flawed by too many convenient coincidences. But, on rare occasions, that's how reality plays out, and one reason why the events surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor have intrigued multiple generations. The United States may have won the war, but the "date that will live in infamy" has attained a life of its own.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (United States/Japan, 1970)