Wednesday, 31 August 2016
Movie Review: Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
It's 1941, and Japan is acting on expansionist ambitions in Asia while negotiating with the United States to avert hostilities. The Japanese Navy commanders are not aligned with their warmongering Army counterparts, and within the Navy ranks there are disagreements regarding the role of air power relative to traditional battleships. Admiral Yamamoto (Sō Yamamura) concludes that if a conflict with the United States is inevitable, a preemptive first strike on the US Navy Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor is essential for Japan to stand any chance of success. Popular commander and ace pilot Mitsuo Fuchida (Takahiro Tamura) is tasked with leading the attack.
Meanwhile, the US Navy command and the politicians in Washington are nervously tracking negotiations and reading intercepted Japanese messages. Admiral Kimmel (Martin Balsam) is convinced that an attack is forthcoming, but he finds it difficult to convince others, while his commanders, including Lieutenant Short (Jason Robards) are caught in a cycle of indecisive double talk and botched communications. Blunders and missteps reduce Pearl Harbor's effective state of readiness despite the presence of radar technology and increasingly clear intelligence. As the Japanese preparations and training for the mission continue, the Americans fail to connect the dots and are caught complete unaware as the attack starts.
Two themes emerge during the lead up to the attack. The first is conflict and uncertainty among Japan's military leadership. The Navy and the Army are not on the same page, with the Navy commanders portrayed as more pragmatic. Conflict also resides within the Navy ranks, the shift away from emphasizing battleship superiority to appreciating what aircraft can offer proving difficult. Yamamoto is portrayed as a logical and realistic strategist: knocking the American carriers out at Pearl was the centrepiece of his plan. While the attack was wildly successful, Yamamoto realized that with the carriers out of port, the prized objective was missed.
Where Tora! Tora! Tora! suffers as a movie is in abject soullessness. Particularly in the American scenes, the actors rigidly go through the motions, reciting earnest lines with extreme cardboardiness. The decision to not cast any stars to allow the story to dominate backfires: the lack of star power in this instance also means an absence of charisma, empathy and depth, and the film quickly wears the cloak of a stiff documentary project. The Japanese scenes are a bit better, with Yamamura the one actor afforded the opportunity to give his character Yamamoto some introspective layers.
When the attack is finally unleashed, the machines take over completely. There is little dialogue as the harrowing and deadly efficient assault is recreated with plenty of attention to detail. The small Japanese Zeros swarm Pearl Harbor, their torpedoes and bombs wreaking havoc on the US Pacific fleet, and the film drives home both the astonishing success and outright horror of the day that will live in infamy. Tora! Tora! Tora! may be dry as dust, but it's also an admirable portrayal of an extraordinary day in world history.
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