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Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
An underestimated epic
I have not seen the movie _Pearl Harbor_; nor, for that matter, do I plan to. I do not personally care for films that warp an important historical event to suit a formulaic date-flick format (a certain travesty involving a big steamship comes immediately to mind). If I go to the movie theater to watch a historical account, then that's what I want to see. _Tora! Tora! Tora!_ is exactly that, and more; it very nearly puts you right in the middle of the conflagration.
It continues to be a source of total wonder for me that _Tora! Tora! Tora!_, a movie made nearly thirty-two years ago, is so expertly presented. The reason for this is twofold: usage of lesser-known character actors to keep plot distraction to a minimum, and the usage of vintage working ships and aircraft to keep the realism to a maximum. These two elements merge together to produce what amounts to a cameraman in a time machine filming the actual events on site.
Since this was a collaborative effort between both US and Japanese film studios, the numerous switches between scenes will give you a good look at the differences between directing (and acting) styles. I am constantly amazed at the boldness of the content for a film released in the US during the Vietnam War, and only 25 years after the Pearl Harbor attack itself; compared to the rather wooden Martin Balsam and Jason Robards, Takahiro Tamura's Lt. Commander Fuchida is replete with a charisma I would never have expected from The Enemy. The Japanese side of the tale is laid before you so well that one is sent into the minds of the people involved, a rarity for American war films. (Sometimes it goes a little bit over the edge -- Admiral Yamamoto's comment "I know [the Americans] are a proud and just people" is a mistranslation -- but the general mood is accurately conveyed overall.)
And then there is the beautiful and sometimes chilling scenery. The attack scenes themselves are eye-popping and brazen enough -- an awesome effort given the technology of the period -- but my personal favorite scene is the Japanese lead strike force's departure from their aircraft carrier. Those of you who purchase the DVD version of the movie should crank up the volume at this point. This is a piece of film that most probably can never be shot again: REAL aircraft flooring their REAL engines and taking flight from a REAL ship of war, against the backdrop of the early dawn, one after another, until the sky is alive with what looks like waves and waves of warplanes. Although the aircraft and ships used were modifed American stock, the flags, uniforms, and color schemes are all authentic... resulting in a spine-tingling spectacle of Japanese pilots plunging headlong into what was ultimately a disastrous mistake. They are depicted as human beings, as they should be.
It is an astoundingly accurate presentation of a dark moment in history for both the US and Japan, free of pretense, pandering to the audience, big-bucks megastars, lovey-dovey sappiness, and computer-generated pixels. You don't *need* any of these things to create a fantastic movie; all you need is history, which we all know is stranger -- and scarier, and more engaging -- than fiction. _Tora! Tora! Tora_ should be in every movie fan's library.