Kirk Douglas, in tuxedo, stood across the patio of Decatur House yesterday evening talking animatedly. Navy Capt. Jack Batzler, the commander of the U.S.S. Nimitz, that aircraft carrier now famous for its presence in the Persian Gulf, looked over at Douglas and smiled ruefully. "He looks more like a captain than I do," Batzler said.
Hollywood meets the Navy. And the Navy meets Hollywood -- mainly in the person of Kirk Douglas playing the captain of the U.S.S. Nimitz in a movie called "The Final Countdown," which premiered in America last night at the Uptown. (Seems it's been everywhere in Europe already.)
Of course, movies about the military have been made before. But somehow this is different. "We see so many scripts that are so message-laden," sighed Adm. David Cooney, head of Navy Information, sounding like a weary casting director. "This one was approached with the idea of fun."
But not only is the idea different -- the U.S.S. Nimitz getting lost in the Pacific and going through a time warp back to the hours before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- the timing is extraordinary. Just a few months after the filming, the Nimitz was deployed to the Persian Gulf and the helicopters that went on the aborted hostage rescue mission were launched from its deck.
"I've been accused of rigging all this," quipped Vice Adm. Gus Kinnear, a likable and down-to-earth man who is the commander of the Naval Air Force Atlantic Fleet. "Of course, that's not so. It was just a curious thing."
"It's one of those ironies of the movie business," said Katharine Ross, who is also in the movie. She made this movie for several reasons: "Money was definitely one of them. Also it wouldn't take much of my time, and I got to play a character in the 1940s which I thought would be fun. And you have to keep working."
Kinnear came over to Ross. "I didn't know your father was in the Navy," he said. "That must be why we're so simpatico."
Both Hollywood and the Navy spoke glowingly of the other Ron O'Neal, best known for the movie "Super Fly," called "Final Countdown" the most important movie of his career. He loved the Navy people -- he played tennis with an admiral and cooked out with others.
Peter Vincent Douglas, the producer of the movie and the son of Kirk Douglas, was patted on the back.Peter had a very small role in the film as well. "We made him a quartermaster," said Kinnear. "He did a real good job. We made him get a haircut."
Kirk Douglas said of the movie, "I think it's a very exciting idea. But I didn't know if the Navy would cooperate. When we got the aircraft carrier, I was dumbfounded." The movie was filmed on the Nimitz.In fact at the Uptown last night, the hosts made the beginning of the film into a party of their own, with the Navy band playing and a tedious list of people -- Navy and otherwise -- introduced.
When they got around to introducing Kirk Douglas, he absent-mindedly remained in his seat a few seconds applauding with everyone else. He suddenly realized he himself was being introduced and shot up out of his seat.
In the late afternoon in front of the Decatur House, as the reception began, an Iranian student named Amo Akabar stood arguing heatedly with Lewis Regenstein, who works for a conservation group. The argument spilled over to a group of Iranians and Americans in the aftermath of a downtown Iranian demonstration. But behind Decatur House, under a huge tent, the voices were low, and the view was all tuxedoes and white dress uniforms with gold cummerbunds. Each group was oblivious to the other. Presidential press secretary Jody Powell didn't even want to talk about the shah, who died early yesterday morning.
"It seems to me a little unseemly to discuss it," said Powell. "He was a man, he was an ally. I think we could wait a day before discussing it." He then said he did not know what effect it would have on the hostages.
About the effect of the president's brother, he was very certain. "When all the facts are out, you will see that the president and the White House conducted themselves properly," Powell said, and then he was led off to have his picture taken with Katharine Ross.
Proceeds from the reception and movie premier, along with an after-theater party hosted by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), will go to the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation.
If the heightened interest in defense is any prolonged spirit of the time, the movie should make a lot of money. It might even help the Navy.
"It's a very good depiction of the Navy, and that will help our recruiting," said the Nimitz's executive officer, Richard Macke.