Thursday 7 March 2013

Movie Review: Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

An earnest retelling of the Doolittle raid, America's first post Pearl Harbour retaliation against mainland Japan, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo succeeds by placing the people and the mission ahead of the machinery and the bombs.

It's early in 1942, and Lt. Col. James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy) is tasked with conceiving and executing a daring bombing raid against targets in Japan. The objectives are to puncture the Japanese perception of invulnerability, and to draw Japanese resources back from the front lines to defend their homeland. A volunteer force of B-25 bomber crews is assembled for training, and they are simply told that the mission is exceedingly dangerous and completely secret.

Among the volunteers are Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson), whose crew includes Cpl. David Thatcher (Robert Walker), while Lt. Bob Gray (Robert Mitchum) leads the crew of another bomber. Lawson is newly married to Ellen (Phyllis Thaxter), who is now pregnant. In total, more than a dozen bomber crews are assembled for ten weeks of training, including learning to execute hazardous short take-offs to simulate operations on an aircraft carrier. With training complete, the bombers are deployed on-board the USS Hornet, and ultimately execute a scrambly mission, successfully bombing their targets but running out of fuel. Lawson ditches off the coast of Japanese-occupied China, and discovers that the really difficult part of his mission is about to start.

Based on Lawson's book of the same name, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo adopts a factual, almost documentary approach, with an emphasis on crew camaraderie and a good taste for the mechanics of the mission, always keeping the lives and spirits of the men at the centre of the drama.

The training and preparations for the raid, and the subsequent deployment on the Hornet, are treated with little glory and plenty of hard graft. Dalton Trumbo's script goes into some impressive details when needed, and the scenes of training for short take-offs, the B-25 pushed to do things it was not necessarily designed for, emphasize the inventiveness needed to gain an advantage in battle. The mixing of army airmen with navy personnel on-board the aircraft carrier is presented with a sense of authenticity as a source of potential tension.

Lawson's relationship with his wife Ellen is provided with plenty of room to breathe and grow. Ellen is the airman's connection to the real world, representing both the home front and a compelling reason to come back alive. Van Johnson and Phyllis Thaxter portray a genuine and tender love, Thaxter compelling as the girl next door, standing fully behind her man and emotionally supporting him with surprising fortitude.

Spencer Tracy's performance as James Doolittle stretches a bit beyond a cameo, but not by much. He is perhaps on the screen for about 10 of the 138 minutes, but leaves a lasting impression as he drops in on the men to introduce every new phase of training and re-emphasize the dangers of the mission.

Director Mervyn LeRoy allows the story to unfold through Johnson's steady performance, the photography alternating between capturing grand scenes (including original newsreel footage) of impressive war machinery and the essence of men dealing with the growing tension of a looming mission filled with unknown dangers.

The final third of the Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo deals with the unexpected post-raid adversity faced by Lawson and his crew after ditching off the coast of China. The post-script to the mission proved to be the most challenging phase, and an apt metaphor for war: it's what happens when the shooting stops that really determines the difference between real success and abject failure.

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