The Final Countdown is a 1980 science fiction film about a modern aircraft carrier that travels through time to just before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. It was directed by Don Taylor, and stars Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, James Farentino and Katharine Ross.
Set in 1980, The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) takes on a civilian observer, Warren Lasky (Sheen) during a training mission in the Pacific Ocean. Lasky’s reclusive boss, Mr. Tideman, watches Lasky’s departure from inside a limousine, his face concealed from both the audience and Lasky, who has never actually met him face to face. Tideman helped design the Nimitz, and Lasky’s assignment is to watch and make recommendations while the ship goes on exercises near Hawaii. Once aboard he meets Captain Matt Yelland (Douglas) and Air Wing Commander Richard Owen (Farentino), among others.
The ship encounters a strange storm-like vortex which disappears after the ship passes through it. They find all normal communication with shore has been cut off except for World War II broadcasts and a very old Jack Benny radio skit. A reconnaissance flight is sent to Pearl Harbor while two fighter jets patrol locally. The fighter pilots are surprised to encounter two “mint condition” World War II Japanese fighter planes, as are the Japanese pilots to see the Navy jets. The jets also fly over a small yacht carrying a U.S. Senator, his secretary, her dog, and a friend of the Senator on board.
The Zeros strafe the boat to kill the passengers, but the Senator, his secretary and her dog survive the boat’s destruction. When the F14s report what happened to the yacht, they are ordered to “play” with the Zeros but not destroy them. They do so and the Japanese pilots appear impressed but shoot anyway, narrowly missing one of the F-14s. After the pilots report that the Zeros are heading toward the Nimitz, they are ordered to attack which proves no difficult task. One Zero’s pilot survives a watery crash and is rescued by a 2nd Navy helicopter after an initial one is sent to pick up the yacht’s survivors.
The reconnaissance plane returns with a photograph that perfectly matches a vintage one that Cmdr. Owen is using for his upcoming World War II book: the scene is of the Pearl Harbor naval forces on December 6, 1941. All doubt seemingly erased, they now realize they’ve actually gone back in time to the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Now Captain Yelland has the dilemma of deciding whether to use the full power of Nimitz to foil the Japanese attack and alter the course of history, or to stand by and allow history to proceed as “normal”. Lasky realizes that Senator Chapman (Charles Durning) was reported missing in the “original” history; he should have been killed by the Zeros. By surviving the attack, Chapman is in line to become President Roosevelt’s next running mate, the next president after Roosevelt’s death in 1945, instead of Harry S. Truman.
Commander Dan Thurman insists that the Nimitz destroy the Japanese task force. Thurman and Lasky argue about the implications for future history. Yelland settles the dispute by “going by the book”: to defend America “past, present, and future” if attacked, and otherwise, to obey the orders of the then-current Commander-in-Chief, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Senator Chapman demands that Yelland notify Pearl Harbor at once. The Japanese POW uses a moment of distraction to kill a couple of guards and take Chapman’s secretary Laurel (Katharine Ross) as a hostage. He is shot after Commander Owen distracts him with detailed information about the secret Japanese plans.
Chapman soon demands to be flown to Pearl Harbor. Captain Yelland pretends to agree, but secretly orders Owen to take them to a deserted island north of Oahu where they’ll be safe during the battle. As Owen, Chapman and Laurel arrive on the deserted island, Chapman realizes that he’s been conned. He knocks a helicopter crewman unconscious and attempts to hijack the helicopter with a flare gun so he can warn Pearl Harbor authorities himself. The helicopter lifts off as Owen tries to re-board, only to lose his grip and fall into the lagoon. The unconscious crewman awakens and tries to subdue Chapman, but Chapman accidentally fires a flare, destroying the helicopter, and killing himself and the crew. Owen and Laurel are now stranded while Nimitz’s crew believes they are among the dead. Captain Yelland begins to execute the attack against the incoming Japanese forces, ordering American fighters into the air. But during the attempt, the freak storm returns and begins to send the ship back to 1980. Yelland calls back the strike force and they, too, are caught within the storm and returned to 1980. Only Owen is left behind in 1941.
At the conclusion, Tideman’s limousine is waiting to meet the Nimitz on her return to port. The chauffeur introduces Lasky, now with Laurel’s dog at his side, to the car’s occupants, “Mr and Mrs Tideman”. Lasky sees they are the now-aged Cmdr. Owen and Laurel, and Laurel is reunited with her dog after nearly four decades apart.