PEARL HARBOR is much more than a place. The words ring through the American consciousness with horrific outrage and prideful response.
The Japanese surprise attack on the American naval base brought this giant of a nation into the most giant of the world's wars. Perhaps that involvement was inevitable, but the attack allows us to pinpoint a moment in time as a fulcrum for the lever that would forever alter the history of the planet.
Two of the three networks are weighing in with special remembrances of that event in honor of its 50th anniversary, proving that they still have documentary departments, though carefully scheduling their efforts on evenings when few ratings points are at risk.
First up tonight at 9 o'clock is ABC with two hours that will be on Channel 13 (WJZ). CBS' two hours will be presented on Saturday, Dec. 7, the actual half-century anniversary, at 8 o'clock on Channel 11 (WBAL).
Inevitably, both specials go over much of the same ground, in some cases using the same commentators and survivors. But, a thumbnail review is that ABC's program is better history while CBS' is better television.
ABC produced "Pearl Harbor: Two Hours that Changed the World" in conjunction with NHK, the biggest broadcaster in Japan. The final text is reportedly the result of many contentious meetings. The result is impressive.
The program is in no way a justification for what the Japanese did, but it does effectively include the point of view of that country, which was then dominated by militaristic figures who saw Japan's destiny as driving the European colonial powers out of Asia and then dominating that continent, with only the military potential of the United States standing in the way.
ABC has not only an interview with President Bush recalling where he was when he learned of the attack, but also similar memories of Kiichi Miyazawa, the prime minister of Japan. It shows not only the devastation visited upon the soldiers and sailors of Pearl Harbor -- who did not know they were at war with anybody -- but also goes to Hiroshima.
The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atomic bomb, many Japanese feel, more than expiated the sins of Pearl Harbor. Yet the ABC/NHK cameras linger on the many comments written by Americans in the Hiroshima memorial's visitor book. "Remember Pearl Harbor," they read.
Hosted by David Brinkley, who adds his own trenchant commentary, "Two Hours that Changed the World" is a first-rate summary of the events that led up to the attack, the misunderstandings that plagued both countries, the exquisite military techniques that pulled it off, the mistakes made by the Americans that led to their being caught by such surprise, the actual nuts-and-bolts of the events of those early morning hours of that fateful Sunday, and what has happened in the subsequent years to the two countries.
But it never moves you with the emotional power of CBS' "Remember Pearl Harbor," which was co-produced with the Tokyo Broadcasting System. Beautifully crafted from the same raw materials ABC used -- archival footage and photographs, survivor interviews, expert commentary -- at times "Remember Pearl Harbor" develops the type of evocative strength we last saw in Ken Burns' "The Civil War."
You learn from the same survivor used in ABC's special about the trapped sailors banging on the hull of the capsized West Virginia. It went on almost until Christmas. CBS presents the information in such a way that those unheard sounds haunt you, though, to its credit, ABC finishes the story by telling
about the eventual recovery of the bodies.
Charles Kuralt, television's best conductor of a spoken fanfare for the common man, hosts this along with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. It's confusing because Schwarzkopf is also interviewed on the tactics of the battle. As an expert, the retired general is superb in his analysis. As a co-host and narrator, he should keep his day job. CBS also uses the Burns technique of having top-notch actors -- Kevin Costner, Dustin Hoffman -- read contemporary letters and chronicles.
Saturday's two hours on CBS focus much more on the attack itself, portraying it as a classic tragedy, the hero falling because of the fatal flaw of his blindness, not seeing the clear messages that were screaming to him of the fate that awaited on these lush tropical islands.
As you are haunted by the banging on the West Virginia, you are moved by the soldier who was blown up in the air and came down with is dead buddy on top of him. Tearfully, you listen to the account of the U.S. pilot who took off from a carrier at sea after learning of the attack, spent hours searching in vain for the Japanese, then returned to land at Pearl Harbor, only to be met byanti-aircraft fire from the near-hysterical troops there who managed to kill several American pilots.
At times "Remember Pearl Harbor" seems a bit hard on the admirals and generals who failed to heed the warnings that an attack was coming, right up to the huge blip on the primitive radar screen that showed up an hour before the bombs hit.
What seem like glowing neon signs in hindsight were hidden by the accepted thinking of the time. Certainly there was a threat of war. All the more reason to keep the ships and planes safe in Pearl Harbor, well-guarded against sabotage, far away from a potential attack by the Japanese.
Dec. 7, 1941, changed the thinking. Nowhere was safe anymore. After the war, communists were seen hiding everywhere. The nuclear threat loomed. A strong defense, ever vigilant, was a must, whatever the expense.
But watching these two specials recorded on Japanese cassettes, playing on a Panasonic VCR through a Toshiba television set makes you think that maybe the thinking has changed again.