As part of the pre-release hype for "Pearl Harbor," World War II vets
attended screenings of the film and then voiced their reactions to the
press. To no surprise, they were enthralled by the production. One
soldier expressed his decades-old fear that the memory of Pearl Harbor
would fade from the public consciousness. He was no longer concerned,
though, for this epic film was a guarantee that he and his comrades
would never be forgotten. Watching the parade of aged veterans before
the cameras was stirring - stirring enough to make it seem vaguely
unpatriotic to criticize such a noble endeavor.
Thankfully, I recovered.
If "Pearl Harbor" bolsters the legacy of those men and women, that's
wonderful, but it should not obscure the fact that the three-hour saga
isn't a very good movie. Intended to tap into the lucrative "Titanic"
audience, "Pearl Harbor" is two-thirds cheesy love story and one-third
fireworks extravaganza. Imagine a vintage Grade B WW II romance with
state of the art special effects, edited by someone with attention
deficient disorder, and you'll have an idea of what to expect.
The tale follows Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) as the
best-friends-since-childhood become pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Rafe falls in love with Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a dedicated nurse,
shortly before volunteering to travel to England and fight in the Battle
of Britain. Shot down by enemy aircraft, he is mistakenly reported as
dead. After a mourning period, Danny and Evelyn become a couple.
Of course, Rafe reappears in their life, leading to exactly what you
would expect. The high drama between the three is interrupted when the
Japanese launch their staggering assault on Pearl Harbor. Later, both
men must leave Evelyn, this time to take part in a daring retaliatory
raid. Let into command headquarters by a sympathetic officer, the
terrified nurse listens to air reports of the attack that might rob her
of the two most important men in her life.
Comparisons between "Pearl Harbor" and "Titanic" don't hold up. The love
story in "Titanic" worked because the young man and woman served as
representatives for all the souls onboard the disaster-bound ship. They
were the embodiment of the hopes and dreams that were cut short when the
massive boat went under. The romantic triangle between Rafe, Danny and
Evelyn lacks that resonance. These characters are cut from the pages of
a cheap paperback. When Evelyn describes the first time she met Rafe,
her girlfriends listen raptly, giggling too hard at just the right
moments because they are supporting players and that is their job. When
Rafe and Danny race to try and stem the initial Japanese assault, each
man's survival is assured because an old-time hero cannot die unless he
is making a noble sacrifice in the final reel.
The battle scenes are just what you would expect from Michael Bay, the
director of "Armageddon". The film jumps like lightning from one action
image to the next, with jiggling cameras attempting to create a sense of
verisimilitude as planes whoosh by in breathtaking fashion and
weapons-fire explodes all around. Every few seconds, the screen fills
with carefully composed panoramas of the devastation being wrought from
above. The big money shot follows a Japanese bomb as it drops from the
plane and plummets into a United States ship, resulting in a massive
It's an extremely cool visual, which is precisely the problem. In a film
that is supposed to be honoring the men and women of Pearl Harbor,
should we be oohing and aahing as we watch them die? The battle scenes
in "Saving Private Ryan" put us right in the middle of the nightmare of
combat. "Pearl Harbor" is a throwback to the war-as-spectacle school of
filmmaking and, at least for me, that is no longer viable.
Incidentally, Bay's tendency to whoosh is not confined to the battles.
Even during the gentle moments, his cameras repeatedly glide alongside,
below and above the actors. The crane operators for this movie must have
made a fortune. Bay doesn't know when to lighten up, and neither does
the bullying orchestral score, which attempts to force emotions up the
audience ear. On the positive side, while the idyllic vistas in the
early scenes are too perfect to be believed, they are nonetheless quite
lovely, using the color palate well.
Within this cavalcade of overkill are a group of talented actors. When a
British officer asks Rafe if all Yanks are "so anxious to die," the
airman replies, "Not anxious to die, sir, anxious to matter." That Ben
Affleck is able to keep a straight face while delivering that hack line
is a tribute to his skill. As Danny, Josh Hartnett hits the right notes
and Kate Beckinsale is quite striking as Evelyn. Other cast members play
characters based on real people. In a crucial supporting role, Jon
Voight is flat-out amazing as FDR, totally disappearing into the persona
of the commander-in-chief. Alec Baldwin breathes life to aviation legend
Jimmy Doolittle, despite being saddled with a nonstop barrage of lines
straight from Cliché Central. Allotted criminally short screen time is
Cuba Gooding Jr., who gives a restrained performance as Doris "Dorie"
Miller, the first black soldier to be honored in WW II.
Even though it rips off a slew of other movies and tries to turn war
into a thrill ride, "Pearl Harbor" deserves credit for honoring the work
of nurses and, albeit briefly, servicemen of color, in addition to white
male veterans. It also deserves credit for treating the Japanese fairly
and for showing, if only for a split second, the bigotry aimed at
Asian-Americans. "Pearl Harbor" is not an awful movie. It is simply
another example of what happens when a film is made by technicians
instead of artists.
Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott