Wednesday 31 August 2016

Movie Review: Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

A straightforward, fact-based dramatization of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Tora! Tora! Tora! does its job well. But the absence of character depth and individual drama reduces the film to the level of an educational documentary, a valuable piece of history but less than compelling as a cinematic experience.

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.

Co-directed by Richard Fleischer, Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku, Tora! Tora! Tora! offers a balanced, both-sides-of-the-conflict view leading up to the day of the attack. The final 45 minutes are then purely dedicated to recreating the attack itself. With the Japanese language used in all the scenes involving the Japanese side, and almost every scene capturing a historically accurate meeting or event, the film is a faithful look back at a seminal moment in World War Two.

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.

The second theme is the series of early warnings not heeded by the United States. From early in November until December 7th itself, intelligence intercepts suggested that an attack was imminent, yet a series of fumbles and a general sense of indecisiveness and hand wringing prevented US politicians and the Navy brass from drawing the correct conclusions and taking the threat seriously. The continued lurching in and out of half-hearted states of alert blunted awareness at Pearl Harbor. Tora! Tora! Tora! was the agreed code for the Japanese pilots in the first wave to report a state of complete surprise, and that was what they achieved.

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 event.

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