"You know, this year wasn't the big year of the war, '41. I think the really big year is going to be 1942." -- Sgt. Frank Tree
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and John Milius
Principal cast members:
This is a movie that should be so much better than it is. Spielberg as a director, the writers responsible for the "Back to the Future" franchise as well as "Apocalypse Now", and a comedic cast of monumental proportions - there are a good 10 recognizable names not listed in the short list above. And it is widely regarded as a major flop. Despite that, it has some outstanding performances and some highly comical moments. It's just so … not what you hoped it would be.
The movie is set in Los Angeles in the days immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The west coast is in a bit of a panic and with good reason. The Japanese attack shocked the nation and logically, after Hawaii was attacked, California seemed like the next target. Based loosely on true incidents, the movie describes a Japanese submarine attack on LA amid a group of disparate, panicky Californians trying to deal with the potential disaster they see looming.
The single biggest flaw in the structure of the movie itself is that most of the humorous storylines have almost nothing to do with one another. The submarine and the one torpedo it fires do more or less tie most of the threads together at the end, but it is a very loose knot and for two hours or more prior to the ending, most of the threads seem completely unrelated which makes the movie a structural mess. Transitions are abrupt and disorienting. Some dialogue just seems utterly pointless and mystifyingly unrelated to the rest of the film.
Zemeckis and Gale were a few years away from the tight storytelling they did in the Back to the Future franchise but Milius was an established screenwriter. His other project around this time was winning a Golden Palm at Cannes for Coppola so it seems strange that this film should be so utterly disjointed, random, and chaotic. Taken as individuals, Spielberg, Zemeckis, Gale, and Milius are very good at what they do. But this train wreck obviously doesn't benefit fully from all their talents.
Spielberg is a master of the big wide pull shot where we zoom back from something small and take in the big picture. He gets to use that a few times in the movie and they are all great moments, though they are also completely unrelated. His normal ability to tightly frame action that moves continuously with brilliant pace is lost because we're jumping around between characters and locations that seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. It's almost as if this script was about as non-conducive to the director's strengths as it could possibly be.
Having said that, there are some truly beautiful comic scenes in this film. It opens with a young woman jumping out of her car on a foggy December morning and shedding a coat to leap naked into the ocean surf. The scene is eerily reminiscent of the opening to Jaws. In fact, the actress is the very same that was featured in the previous Spielberg blockbuster and so is the music. This time, however, instead of being tugged under the water by a great white shark, she is hoisted aloft by the periscope of a surfacing Japanese submarine. Both the homage and the humor of the moment are well done.
It's a promising opening and it is followed by other intriguing scenes. Inside the submarine, for instance, we see two screen legends. Toshiro Mifune plays the sub commander and Christopher Lee is the German advisor sent to monitor their activities. They end up kidnapping a farmer played by Slim Pickens and his brief appearance adds a few laughs to the early going.
The movie's top billings, however, went to Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Belushi plays a deranged P-40 pilot who rambles through the movie thinking he is tracking a Japanese fighter squadron down the length of California. In general, he has little or nothing to do with the rest of the cast, though he does have a hilarious meeting with Warren Oates who plays in insane colonel whose battalion is lurking somewhere in the interior of the state waiting to spring into action.
Aykroyd's role is more instrumental as motor pool sergeant Frank Tree. His first appearance is in placing a 40mm anti aircraft gun in the yard of home owner, Ward Douglas played with flummoxed perfection by Ned Beatty. Aykroyd carefully explains to Beatty the specific things he should never do so that the homeowner can avoid accidentally firing the gun. Later, when he spots the sub and decides to try to sink it, Beatty has to recite the instructions in reverse to load and fire the gun with hilarious consequences.
Amid all the chaos, Robert Stack gives a brilliant performance as Major General Joseph W. Stillwell. He is an island of calm throughout the movie, but provides some wonderful laughs as he sits in a movie theater, crying softly as he sings along to the Disney cartoon, 'Dumbo.' His aide, Loomis Birkhead, is played by Tim Matheson who is desperately trying to seduce a secretary played by Nancy Allen. The rumor has it that Nancy's character can only become aroused in an airplane so Matheson manages to get her aloft in a broken down Lockheed Electra and then manages to fly it across the spotlight-strewn sky of a very trigger-happy Los Angeles.
Much of the plot involves short order cooks, Bobby Di Cicco and Perry Lang trying to get into a USO dance that is closed to them as civilians. It is a major quest for Di Cicco because his girlfriend, played by Dianne Kay as Ned Beatty's daughter, is a hostess. This subplot culminates in a massive riot between zoot-suiters like Di Cicco and soldiers led by Treat Williams. The dance host and hostess are portrayed by Joe Flaherty and Penny Marshall. But the comic treat of the entire zoot-suit riot sequence is comic wonder, Wendie Jo Sperber who plays Kay's friend, Maxine. Spurned by Treat Williams, Maxine determines to get her man even if it is by force and soon, it becomes apparent that the zoot-suiters at the riot are the least of Williams' worries.
In the end, the Japanese manage to attack Hollywood, or something close to it. The riot is ended with an inspiring patriotic speech from Aykroyd. Ned Beatty manages to fire his gun and sink the submarine, or at least, watch it disappear under the waves. And one very busy, very chaotic day in California comes to an end with everyone feeling a tiny bit safer than they did the day before. Even if it is a delusion.
While Spielberg is unquestionably a masterful director, he has never really excelled at comedy. He is brilliant at adding subtle comic touches to his adventure films, like the Indiana Jones franchise. But this stands alone as the one time Spielberg tried to make a film that was a comedy in its entirety and it is clear that the kind of pacing and cinematography that make his adventures great just don't produce the same results here. Zemeckis and Gale did a stellar job dealing with historical touches, tight dialogue, and rapid pace with the Back to the Future franchise, but in this movie, it seems they've simply tried to tell way too many stories and failed in the end to tell enough of one to create a good film.
Ironically, we're presented with a marquee that names two of the great comic actors of their era - Belushi and Aykroyd - and in the end we get far more laughs out of Warren Oates, Ned Beatty, and Wendie Jo Sperber in much smaller roles. Maybe the ultimate lesson for everyone involved is that less is all too often more.
Coolness factor: 7
Overall entertainment: 6