Heroes in war and at home

Tom Brokaw special revisits Pearl Harbor; Oscar-winning

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

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.

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"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...."

***

"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."

Filmmaker Tracy Seretean repeats these words spoken by her friend, who died in December, with a catch in her throat. Clearly she respected and loved Ms. Dees, whom she said was "authentically good." Big Mama airs on Cinemax's Reel Life May 30 (7:30-8:15 p.m.), and there is no doubt that it deserves the Oscar it won in March.

Dees "exuded love," says Ms. Seretean about the African-American grandmother who fought to keep her nine-year-old grandchild, Walter, out of the foster-care system.

"You don't often meet people who are without guile - who are all about doing good even if it hurts them," Seretean says.

Deserted by his mother, Walter had been in the care of Dees for five years since the death of his father. Dees had promised her son that Walter would always have a home with her while she lived. But the Department of Children's and Family Services (DCFS) threatened to take Walter away from Dees because of her age.

When Dees experienced a mild heart attack, Walter acted up at first. And when he accidentally set the house afire, he was placed in a psychiatric hospital - a nightmare for both of them. DCFS determined that the child needed more supervision, so Dees found him a special school that helped him for a year. When his therapy was over, the child was placed in foster care.

Seretean draws us in with the dignity of her subject, and she makes us realize with the close-up of the child's hand in his grandmother's, or his face buried in his pillow when she leaves him, just how badly he needs her and how right she is to claim him.

What is most impressive about this documentary is the immense dignity and incredible strength of character of Big Mama (her affectionate nickname). It is her authentic faith that gets her through the toughest moments. In one scene she tells us she feels better after reading the Bible. And when she quotes from it, her faith and confidence arise out of the wisdom of her experience.

Seretean was attracted to the story partly because her own grandparents helped raise her when her parents traveled for their work. She read a story about Dees in the Los Angeles Times and called her up. Seretean had worked on Wall Street, and then as a radio producer, but she had never made a movie. So she took a summer course at the University of Southern California and made an 18-minute version of the film. "It was terrible," she says. But she tried again, taking a year to shoot. Then HBO sent her to work with one of its top-notch editors.

"It was scary," she says. "Documentary film is the hardest thing I've ever undertaken...."

There are 2 million children in this country who have no one but their grandparents, Seretean says. These grand persons aren't applauded for raising a generation of kids suffering from abandonment and neglect. "In most states, they don't even get the benefits that foster parents get. That leads to the question, 'Are we funding the dissolution of the family?' " Seretean asks.

An inspired familial love is seldom seen on television. Seretean's affection for both Walter and Big Mama and the message of the importance of one forlorn little boy make this film as moving as it is. "I thought Walter should have that unconditional love as long as possible," Seretean says, and then later, "Viola took the hard road in the service of what she thought was right. Always."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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