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Saturday, February 16, 2013


If you managed to slog your way through the sappy love story long enough to get to the good parts of Michael Bay's 2001 war epic PEARL HARBOR, you probably thrilled to its truncated recounting of the Doolittle Raid.  This unprecedented military mission was the United States' daring response to the infamous Japanese surprise attack of December 7, 1941 on the American naval fleet in Honolulu, Hawaii, which dragged a formerly isolationist United States into World War II.

The film's colorful but fictionalized depiction gives an inkling of what was involved, but for the full story--and all the excitement, suspense, and real human drama that went along with it--you can probably do no better than Athena's 2-disc, 4-episode DVD set MISSIONS THAT CHANGED THE WAR: THE DOOLITTLE RAID, which originally aired on the Military Channel.

The documentary begins at the annual reunion of Doolittle Raid survivors, of which only five are now left out of the original 80.  These survivors share with us their invaluable memories in interview footage that's skillfully woven into a kinetic montage of vintage and recent footage, reenactments, and visually appealing computer graphics.  Thus, the story never becomes simply a succession of talking heads.

Part one, "The Call to War", recalls the opening days of America's involvement in WWII as the military scramble to respond to the Pearl Harbor attack in a way that will boost homeland morale even as Japanese forces continue marching to victory throughout the South Pacific.  A daring plan is hatched as seen in part two, "Special Aviation Project Number One", in which B-25 bombers under the command of aviation legend James Doolittle will be launched from an aircraft carrier within 400 miles of Tokyo. 

We learn how Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle and his brave volunteers were trained to take off in stripped-down B-25s with only a third of the normal runway distance, the men being unaware of the full details of their mission until they and their planes were aboard the USS Hornet itself.  In part three, "The Target of This Task Force is Tokyo", the suspense intensifies when the carrier is prematurely spotted by Japanese ships, forcing the pilots to take off much farther from their target than anticipated.  (Amazing actual film footage of the B-25s taking off from the carrier's flight deck is included.)

This sudden change in plan meant that the planes wouldn't have enough fuel to reach safe haven after the Tokyo bombing raid.  Narrator Gary Sinise (FORREST GUMP, APOLLO 13), who is fast becoming one of our foremost voiceover artists, and the Doolittle survivors give vivid accounts of the fates of these pilots and their crews subsequent to the bombing raid.
Some bailed out as their planes ran out of fuel, while others made hazardous water landings.  Some were rescued by brave Chinese who risked their own lives to help.  Some endured torture and brutal conditions as prisoners of the Japanese.  Three were executed. 

Part four, "The Legacy", tells the full story of the raid's aftermath, including Doolittle's belief that the mission was a failure and that he would be court-martialed.  (History would prove him wrong on both counts.)  Most importantly, we learn that the Doolittle raid became a decisive turning point in America's war with Japan by proving that the Japanese home islands weren't invulnerable to attack as their citizens had been led to believe by an overconfident leadership.
The 2-disc DVD set from Athena is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  Along with an enclosed booklet, extras consist of a timeline of James Doolittle's life and an extended (21 minutes) interview with survivor Edward Saylor, engineer gunner of crew #15. 

As military documentaries go, the impeccably mounted MISSIONS THAT CHANGED THE WAR: THE DOOLITTLE RAID is both exhaustively informative and thoroughly involving from beginning to end.  The "Cliff Notes" version of the event as seen in the film PEARL HARBOR is merely an appetizer for this main course, which history fans should find a most satisfying indulgence.

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