Random Musings: Traveling back in time for The Final Countdown

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Final Countdown

In 1980, the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz departs from Pearl Harbor under the command of Captain Matthew Yelland (Kirk Douglas). The ship is carrying efficiency expert Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen), an employee of Tideman Industries, sent to the Nimitz by the mysterious Richard Tideman, a man he’s never met. In fact, no one on Yelland’s crew has ever met Tideman, who helped design and build the Nimitz.

Lasky is introduced to Executive Officer Dan Thurman (Ron O’Neal) and assigned to quarters adjacent to Wing Commander Dick Owens (James Farentino). He gets off on the wrong foot with Owens by entering his cabin and reading his manuscript about the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

He’d knocked on the door to say hello, found the cabin empty, noticed the manuscript and gotten curious.

The Nimitz encounters a strange electrical storm. When the skies clear again, the crew is unable to reach any familiar contacts by radio, but picks up an old Jack Benny broadcast.

The storm

The storm.

Yelland accepts Lasky’s word that this isn’t part of some test, but he also rejects the suggestion that a nuclear exchange has taken place.

The truth is even more surprising. Somehow, the storm has sent the Nimitz back in time.

To Dec. 6, 1941.

The Final Countdown is one of my favorite films. It’s one of those films I’ll sit down and watch if I come across it on TV.

But the plot makes absolutely no sense.

Spoilers follow:

Yelland decides to engage the Japanese fleet. The crew’s job is to defend the country, and that’s what they’ll do— even if it is decades in the past.

Discussing strategy

Discussing strategy.

But it’s not that simple. During a scouting mission, two jets from the Nimitz rescue survivors of a yacht attacked by a pair of Japanese Zeros and Owens brings them back to the ship. These are Senator Samuel Chapman (Charles Durning); his secretary, Laurel Scott (Katharine Ross) and her dog, Charlie.

Chapman and Scott

Chapman and Scott.

History records that Chapman disappeared and was presumed dead on Dec. 7, 1941. According to Owens’ manuscript, had Chapman lived, he would likely have been Roosevelt’s running mate in 1944 and subsequently become president in 1945.

Owens tells Lasky he recognized Chapman at once, but couldn’t very well toss him back into the sea.

Owens and Chapman

Owens and Chapman.

For his part, Chapman, co-chair of the Senate Defense Committee, is perplexed that such a ship should even exist. Yelland allows him to contact Pearl Harbor, but the Pearl Harbor radio operator dismisses him as a crank because there’s no record of either a USS Nimitz or a Captain Yelland.

Yelland tells Chapman he’ll have him and Scott flown to Pearl Harbor, but actually instructs Owens to drop them off, with suitable supplies, on a small island, well away from the Japanese attack.

When Chapman realizes he’s been tricked, he surreptitiously grabs a flare gun while Owens and Scott are on the beach. He commandeers the helicopter, which explodes a moment later during a struggle over the gun.

Meanwhile, just as the Nimitz is preparing to engage the Japanese fleet, the mysterious storm reappears and transports the ship back to 1980.

As Lasky disembarks, accompanied by Charlie, he’s told that Mr. and Mrs. Tideman would like him to join them. He steps into a limo and is greeted by an elderly Commander Richard T. Owens and Laurel Scott.

Mr. and Mrs. Tideman

Mr. and Mrs. Tideman.

Roll credits.

Wait, so for all intents and purposes, the USS Nimitz went back in time to strand one guy in 1941, so he’d one day become the mysterious millionaire (or billionaire) who helped design the Nimitz? Wouldn’t it have been more efficient if the time storm had simply swept up Commander Owens when he was walking down the street?

Question: Did the Nimitz change history by being in 1941?

No. I believe that it was always part of events. It’s the only logical explanation why Laurel Scott is still alive in 1980, much less on Dec. 7, 1941.

There was never an “original history” in which Chapman was killed on the yacht. He’d always died in a struggle on board a helicopter he’d tried to commandeer. If he’d died on the yacht, Scott would have, too; it was far from land and there was no indication that she was an exceptionally strong swimmer. Only outside intervention could have saved either of them.

There was also no indication history was changed by her survival.

The strongest evidence that the Nimitz was part of events in 1941 is the fact that we “sort of” meet Tideman in the opening scene (he’s in silhouette inside a limo, watching Lasky’s departure).

It still leaves unanswered why the Nimitz went back to 1941, yet played no role in the events of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Other than raising some interesting philosophical questions in a movie, there doesn’t seem to be any “in universe” rationale for the Nimitz to be part of those specific events.

There isn’t even the suggestion that fate decreed that the Nimitz should be on hand to ensure that Laurel Scott lived to old age because she had an important destiny to fulfill. That would have been more interesting than having the ship— essentially— serving as a time-traveling ferry service.

At least in the novelization by Martin Caidman, Tideman tells Lasky that Scott was the master of the power politics h’d played over the decades.

That’s the frustrating thing about the film. Nothing happens in the grand scheme of things. We don’t even know what led Owens to assume the name Richard Tideman. The name meant nothing special to him in 1980. Even if you assume Owens’ middle name was Tideman, what made him realize that he and the Richard Tideman were the same person?

Unfortunately the novelization doesn’t provide any answers.

There’s also a single word of dialogue I wish had been cut from the script. When Lasky and Charlie descend the gangplank, the dog runs to the limo. We hear a woman’s voice say, “Charlie.” That spoils the surprise regarding the occupants of the limo.

For all its flaws, The Final Countdown is an enjoyable film; but it might have been more interesting (and satisfying) to have followed the adventures of a time lost Commander Owens than those of an aircraft carrier that goes back to Dec. 7, 1941, only to return to its own time before it can engage the Japanese fleet.

Copyright 2017 Patrick Keating.