What if Martin Sheen, Kirk Douglas, that girl from The Graduate and Doc Hopper from the original Muppet Movie all got together to make a film about the Navy inadvertently traveling in time? Specifically a Nimitz class, and indeed the U.S.S. Nimitz herself, aircraft carrier traveling back to Hawaii on December 6, 1941? You get a surprisingly good film believe it or not. And what with today marking the 70th year following that day of infamy, what better way to remember than to take the modern symbol of American military might back in time to defend Pearl Harbor against an “unprovoked and dastardly attack.”
What’s curious about The Final Countdown is it dances a fine line between Naval propaganda and genuine Hollywood story telling. The actual time travel event occurs just 20 minutes into the movie which gives us plenty of time before the attack to watch jets and helicopters take off and land from the deck. Obviously they have to do lots of recon and general buzzing around while they figure out exactly what just happened, so we get treated to shots of every type of aircraft on board the ship taking off and landing. This is where I get propaganda feelings, but you have to consider the time frame. The Final Countdown was released in 1980, a full six years before the Europe song so nix the rocking soundtrack. The Nimitz was only launched four years earlier and at that time she was the largest war ship the world had ever seen. With her two nuclear power plants she was capable of deployment ranges well beyond previous capabilities and the F-14 Tomcat of Top Gear fame had only been in use since 1974. Here was a film released at the height of the Cold War showcasing the very best of the U.S. Navy’s arsenal. So how does that not qualify as propaganda? Well, aside from the constant launches and recoveries on the deck, which would have been thrilling to see on the big screen, there is exactly zero emphasis on the superiority of the equipment. Even when they’re buzzing Japanese Zeros, oh yes!, no one complains about the need to fly at stall speed to keep from zipping right past the old prop planes. Yet, right up to the end I wasn’t sure which way the movie was going. Would it take the gung-ho Maverick route and knock those Japs out of the sky and alter history forever or would the unwritten laws of science fiction intervene and prevent them from changing the course of history? I really wasn’t sure until it happened.
Really I think it’s the simplicity of the movie that draws me in. So many things are taken for granted. There’s no long debates over exactly how they traveled through time and the people they meet are surprised by the technology from 40 years in their future, but never horrified. Never dumbfounded. The discussion I was most looking forward to never happened. The aforementioned Sheen plays a civilian systems analyst with the Department of Defense who is on board to review the efficiency of ship operations or some other boring bureaucratic nonsense, so when the opportunity to prevent the attack on Pearl Harbor presents itself I expected him to be whole heartedly against the idea of drastically altering history. Instead he is leading the support for taking action. After all, as a systems analyst and history buff he has reviewed the Japanese attack and has discovered their errors and now he has the fire power to thwart them.
Kirk Douglas, Spartacus himself, is the Captain of the Nimitz and he shows the most reluctance. Yet his arguments are centered around acting without orders and declaring war on Japan without provocation, not the obvious history altering dilemma. Sheen makes several half-hearted attempts to raise these arguments, specifically when it comes to Pappy O’Daniel and his potential for replacing Truman as FDR’s final running mate. Yet not once is the crucial question answered. Where would the fate of the world lie had the Americans not entered the war in the twilight of 1941? What effect on the public conscience would a sudden and bizarre annihilation of the Empire of Japan’s fleet off the coast of Hawaii have? When would America have entered the war? While it’s true England held their own valiantly in those early years, they could not have kept the Nazi Eagle at bay indefinitely and they were in no position to drive the Third Reich back from its expanded borders. America enter the war late at best and could not have forestalled its entrance much longer without jeopardizing its closest allies of the 20th century. But nobody aboard the Nimitz concerns themselves with this debate. They are laser focused on a single point in history without concern for its place in said history.
So there is nothing left to do but attack the Japanese before they reach Hawaii. Given the Nimitz’s superior armament it would therefore seem prudent to simply launch a strike force, sink the Japanese carriers and return to the Nimitz to twiddle their thumbs while they figure out how to return to 1980 in time to attempt the rescue of the U.S. diplomats in Iran. After all, Douglas has been spying on the Japanese fleet with an AWAC almost since they realize they weren’t in Kansas anymore. But that would be silly. It would make much more sense to launch ever plane on the ship to intercept the Japanese bombers on their way to the harbor. But as I said before, I was still unsure whether they would actually engage the Japanese right up until the end, so I’m not about to tell you what happened.
In the end we had a cute, if not telegraphed love story between the Wing Commander and Mrs. Robinson’s daughter and an ending any time travel veteran could predict. Still, it was entertaining and mildly educational. And there were lots of exciting shots of airplanes taking off and landing. Lots and lots. Maybe I can get my “what if” debate satisfied by our loyal Faceplant readers?