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Heroes in war and at home

Tom Brokaw special revisits Pearl Harbor; Oscar-winning

By M.S. Mason Television critic of The Christian Science Monitor / May 25, 2001



With the movie "Pearl Harbor" opening in theaters this weekend, it's good to get our facts straight before we see it.

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Tom Brokaw of NBC Nightly News is just the man for the job. He's hosting National Geographic Channel Presents Pearl Harbor: Legacy of Attack (NBC, May 27, 9-11 p.m.). Other specials airing Memorial Day weekend include Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor, followed by Tora, Tora, Tora: The Real Story of Pearl Harbor (May 26, History Channel, 8-11 p.m.). And David Brinkley hosts an ABC news special featuring interviews with American survivors (May 26, 10-11 p.m.).

Mr. Brokaw has immersed himself in the facts of World War II. His bestseller, "The Greatest Generation," and the two sequels, "The Greatest Generation Speaks" and "An Album of Memories," examine the struggles, faults, and triumphs of the generation that grew up during the Great Depression and then fought World War II.

"I don't have to remind this audience that anchormen do not fake modesty well," said Brokaw in a recent phone conference call. "But [writing the book] has been a truly humbling experience, and it's been the most profoundly gratifying experience of my professional career...."

His debt of gratitude is underscored in the fascinating documentary he hosts. The aim is to revive interest in the Pacific theater of war during World War II. "Pearl Harbor" focuses on the Japanese attack on a US Navy considered impregnable and a people certain they were safe, he points out.

"We had this false sense of security. Honolulu was an assignment to paradise," he says. "So far as we could tell, the [Japanese] never thought they could bring us to our knees. They hoped to get the US to sue for truce. But what they did was enrage this country and turn isolationists into interventionists overnight."

Asked why the revival of interest in World War II has been so strong in recent years, he cites the movie "Saving Private Ryan" and the turn of the millennium. Steven Spielberg reminded Americans what D-Day was actually like to live through. And Brokaw's own books came at a time when people were looking back over the century, assessing its events.

"This had been a hinge period in the history of the world," Brokaw says. "It's hard to imagine anything counted more than World War II."

But, aside from the Hollywood movie, there is another reason for the revival of interest in the era. "We had the spectacle of what was going on in Washington on both sides of the political aisle," Brokaw says. "People longed for heroes and episodes that they could be proud of in their national life."

It was the greatest generation, in his estimation, but it wasn't perfect - there were rogues, racism, and gender discrimination going on at that time. And there were atrocities as well. "But there was a strong sense of loyalty to each other and common ground and duty and honor because the stakes were so high...."

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"I'm not a public spokesperson," said Viola Dees, the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary short film "Big Mama," at an early screening last year. "And I'm certainly glad that you liked the film. But what I really hope is that it will get us to put our heads together and answer the cries of our nation's children."