Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, May 25, 2001

Soh Yamamura plays Admiral Yamamoto in "Tora Tora Tora,"
which has been digitally remastered and
reissued on VHS and DVD.

National Geo
Pearl Harbor video
flabby effort

"Pearl Harbor: Legacy of Attack"
National Geographic -- 8 p.m. KHNL , Sunday

Reviewed by Burl Burlingame

In addition to books and magazines -- and isn't there some sort of movie out now? -- the attack on Pearl Harbor is also making itself highly visible on television.

The first shot over the video bow is National Geographic's "Pearl Harbor: Legacy of Attack," airing Sunday night on NBC and on the National Geographic Channel (not available here). It follows NatGeo's pattern of alternating a "search" -- for a Japanese "midget" submarine -- with snippets of history and of science. Suspense is artificially heightened because they don't give you a clue whether the object is found or not until the end. It's like a drawing-room mystery with no drawing room and no mystery.

Tom Brokaw, still riding the "Greatest Generation" gravy train, bookends the action, speaking from the deck of the USS Missouri in a voice trembling with either emotion or jet lag.

A scene from "Tora Tora Tora," digitally remastered and
reissued on VHS and DVD. A portion of the proceeds from
sales of the film classic will be donated to the
Arizona Memorial Museum Fund.

In this case, National Geographic "explorers in residence" Robert Ballard and Stephen Ambrose are on hand to hunt for the sub near the entrance to Pearl Harbor. They troll around the ocean for a while, mope on the deck and come up with zilch. They try manfully to inject some tension into the proceedings by waxing flatulent about the attack, but NatGeo tried the same thing a decade ago and also struck out. Sunken subs aren't easy to find.

The reasons for that seem awfully familiar, as my book "Advance Force -- Pearl Harbor," covered the same territory earlier. As for the big picture, Ballard and Ambrose ignore the overwhelming nature of the larger submarine assault on Hawaii and the West Coast, in which the subs of the Japanese task force crippled an aircraft carrier, shot up small communities and terrorized survivors, as well as fought a running battle with the U.S. Navy. Not to mention inspiring the movie "1941." Instead the NatGeo "explorers" focus exclusively on the "midgets," a casually racist tack that diminishes and patronizes the Japanese threat.

Far more successful are the segments dealing with the crumbling archaeology of the USS Arizona. The ship, we discover, is falling apart faster than anyone thought (they ignore the possible reasons, now thought to be an acidic reaction with the stored oil) and might suddenly collapse some day and release tens of thousands of gallons of oil into the harbor, an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen. The scariness quotient is racheted up with ominous music.

Riding on the coat tails of the "Pearl Harbor" premiere is
Robert Ballard, right, in "Pearl Harbor: Legacy of Attack."

Fascinating glimpses of the ship's interior are provided via a remote-operated robot probe, the first time the inside of the Arizona had been accessed since salvage efforts ended in 1942. Papers still lie in cubbyholes, hangers dangle in closets, chairs are overturned. It's spooky and unsettling, and these few minutes justify watching the show.

Unfortunately, this segment isn't long enough. The rest of the show is overly inflated to justify Ballard's two-week cruise off Pearl Harbor. Instead of a serious effort, this is dabbling in the shadow of the "Pearl Harbor" cash cow.

Just released is "Pearl Harbor: The Eyewitness Story," which isn't exactly new. It's an edited-down version of "Target Pearl Harbor," based on the excellent Mike Slackman book of the same title. It's available in video stores and pops up on the Discovery Channel from time to time.

And the classic "Tora Tora Tora" has been digitally remastered and reissued on VHS and DVD. The detail of the movie is quite a revelation on DVD, which also contains many extras like a documentary about making the movie. 20th Century Fox is donating a portion of the proceeds, plus other Fox movies with similar themes like "The Sand Pebbles," to the Arizona Memorial Museum Fund, about as worthy a cause as you'll find this year.

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