“Riveting” is the first word that comes to mind upon viewing a new program that reconstructs in real time the events of one of the most fateful days in American history, Dec. 7, 1941, a date that President Franklin D. Roosevelt predicted would live in infamy, and for which we are rapidly approaching the 75th anniversary.
Most of us weren’t around to hear firsthand of the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor on a quiet Sunday morning as waves of Japanese planes bombed the U.S. naval facility, its warships and a nearby airfield, killing more than 2,400 Americans and thrusting the nation head-first into World War II.
“The Lost Tapes: Pearl Harbor” plunges us straight into the maelstrom as it recaptures moments as they happened, raw and unfiltered, through the eyes of sailors, news reporters and eyewitnesses.
The devastating drama, including a submarine torpedoing of a U.S. cargo ship, unfolds moment by moment through original sources including radio reports, film footage, audiotape, photographs and wire dispatches. The only color film footage that was shot during the attack has been restored and graphically reveals the impact of the bombings.
Among the most heart-stopping media the production team uncovered is the only known live report of the attack as it was happening, reported by a KGU radio newsman calling in to NBC in New York while standing on the roof of a publishing company. Before he was cut off — after just two minutes — by a telephone operator needing the line for an emergency call he felt compelled to say, “It is no joke. This is a real war.”
The hourlong “The Lost Tapes: Pearl Harbor” is the first of a series of four programs slated on Smithsonian Channel that chronicle major events that have forged a lasting imprint on America. Scheduled for next year, timed to their anniversaries, are programs about the 1992 Los Angeles riots resulting from the Rodney King beating by LAPD officers, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army and the capture of the Son of Sam serial killer in New York City.
“We wanted to look at history in a new way. I think of this as history for the Internet age. Today’s generation is used to learning about the world from trawling the Internet, and often finding raw, unedited video clips, which they interpret for themselves. They don’t want to always be told what to think, they want to draw their own conclusions,” David Royle, Smithsonian Channel’s EVP programming and production, told me in an email interview.
“That’s what ‘The Lost Tapes’ does. It plunges viewers back in time, and uses raw film footage and contemporary news reports so that history can be experienced as it happened. The series provides an unfiltered, sometimes shocking, look at significant events — without a narrator telling you how to think.”
Royle says he thinks viewers will be drawn into these dramatic stories because there’s as much drama in them as in many Hollywood movies. But he says he hopes viewers won’t only be entertained, that they will be provoked into seeing the patterns in history and will draw their own conclusions.
“The Lost Tapes” is produced by Tom Jennings of Los Angeles-based 1895 Films, which also produced 2014’s “The Fidel Castro Tapes,” “9/11: The Heartland Tapes” (2013), “MLK: The Assassination Tapes” (2012) and 2010’s “The Lost JFK Tapes.”
Jennings filled in some of the backstory of “Pearl Harbor,” including the genesis of the project and the untold history it reveals through its unique style of storytelling, during a recent interview.
Here is an edited version of our conversation:
TVWeek: How did you first come to the Pearl Harbor project? Have you always been fascinated by the attack, and did you have a personal connection via family members who served during World War II?
Tom Jennings: The Pearl Harbor project was suggested by David Royle. David is a fan of our no-narration, no-interview style of storytelling. We’ve done this type of program for him before, most notably with “MLK: The Assassination Tapes,” which won the Peabody Award. David knew that Pearl Harbor would be a challenger — because we would be telling a story with media from long ago — but thankfully he trusted us to get the job done. For me, I’ve always had a fascination with Pearl Harbor. My father and uncles were in World War II. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, stories told by World War II veterans, even decades after the war, captivated me. I always wondered what it was like to be there — and doing this film in this style is the closest thing we have to experiencing Dec. 7, 1941, by hearing and seeing the same sounds and images that people back then did.
TVWeek: What was your process in gathering the radio reports, film footage, images, newsreels and audio and then deciding how they played out in producing the program?
Jennings: We follow a two-pronged process in putting these programs together. The first is — what is the story we want to tell? What are the main story beats that should be included in order to tell the most complete narrative possible. The second is — what images and sounds are out there that can tell this story? Sometimes, we will find a lot of material about a part of the story that we weren’t counting on. Conversely, there may be a major point in the story that we want to make, but we can’t find any media that illustrates that point. So it’s a constant balancing act — how do we stay true to the story and what is available to bring that story to life. A lot of the Pearl Harbor images and sounds had been found before so we dug deeper. One of my favorite visual elements is the handwritten notes made by a Navy officer who was watching the attack. We get to see what he wrote — more like scrawled — in pencil as the planes were coming in. One sentence says: “Cannot see the Arizona because of smoke.”
TVWeek: Not using a narrator and letting the footage speak for itself in a vérité style made it even more dramatic and clearly required much research, including for the full-screen “cards” that propelled the piece.
Jennings: The no-narration, no-interview style is not easy. It’s the most difficult style of documentary storytelling that we do. However, it’s the one for which we are most proud — because it is so hard to do. When we begin the process, especially with “Pearl Harbor,” we throw as wide a net as possible to seek out material. Too many times, producers will go to the “usual suspects” of archive and footage vendors. We go there, too, but we don’t stop there. It’s too easy to go to the major vendors, get the usual material for your show and move on. Getting everything we can from the major vendors for us is Chapter One. We lay the foundation and then start the real searching. We think outside the box. … we joke here at our office that, “If I were a rare piece of audio or film footage from Dec. 7, 1941, where would I be hiding?” When you think that way, you would be amazed with the creativity you can generate.
TVWeek: As you went through all the acquired media, what were your biggest revelations about the Pearl Harbor attack — and the aftermath?
Jennings: I knew that there was a rare radio broadcast made from Honolulu during the actual attack. It only lasted a little more than two minutes before being cut off by an operator who said she needed the phone line the reporter was using for an emergency call. I had never heard that recording in its entirety. Listening to it, you really get the sense of what it was like to be there — confusing and chaotic. Most people know the famous “Day of Infamy” speech by President Roosevelt, and believe that was the first major statement made by a government official following the attack. That speech was actually the following day, Dec. 8. The first at-length comment actually came the evening of Dec. 7 from Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife. The first lady had a weekly radio program in which she talked with the nation about topics from the time. Her radio show happened to be on Sunday nights. So at the beginning of her show that Sunday evening, she gave a five-minute statement about how the country would have to pull together, face its fears and find a way to carry on. In a way, it’s just as inspiring as her husband’s speech the following day.
TVWeek: It was fascinating to hear FLOTUS talk about “no more uncertainty,” as everyone seemed to know the Japanese would attack at some point, somewhere — and how she advised listeners to rise above their fears, while recognizing service people now called into action and putting faith in her fellow citizens. How would you describe some of the other archival footage that you discovered?
Jennings: Our intention is to let viewers feel like they’re experiencing the events of Pearl Harbor as if they were living at that time. By having to come up with as much visual and audio material possible to tell that story, to make it compelling without a narrator or interviews, we gathered an enormous amount of archive.
TVWeek: Tell us more about the “man on the street” interviews that were uncovered and what they tell you about the American psyche at the time.
Jennings: Alan Lomax was one of America’s foremost chroniclers of folklore. He traveled the country getting people to talk about themselves and their lives. The day after Pearl Harbor, Lomax and a team of 10 of his colleagues went onto city streets throughout the country to ask people what they felt about the attack. The answers he received were extraordinary. Most of the people we heard were amazingly calm. But to a person, they said that the country would have to pull together and fight back. There was no debate about what should be done, just how it would be done … AND that everyone would participate. They almost seemed to talk in one voice. You could tell how much they loved the United States and would do whatever it took to protect it in war.
TVWeek: What do you hope viewers take away from the program?
Jennings: I hope that viewers, even a brief moment, feel like they are sitting in their living rooms in 1941, hearing and watching one of the greatest moments in history unfold as if they were there.
(“The Lost Tapes: Pearl Harbor” premieres Sunday, Dec. 4, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Smithsonian Channel and will also air Monday, Dec. 5, at 8 p.m. ET/PT and Wednesday, Dec. 7, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.)