Pearl Harbor (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

To think of uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and action director Michael Bay is to be reminded of popcorn-and-eye candy trifles like The Rock and Armageddon - movies where flashy special effects and lobotomized scripts are arguably assets. The pairing of Bruckheimer and Bay does not provoke thoughts of a serious epic set against a grand, historical backdrop - and Pearl Harbor illustrates why this is the case. It's a mystery why, with $135 million being spent on this motion picture, a few dollars couldn't have been lavished on the screenplay. The writing (credited to Braveheart scribe Randall Wallace) isn't just mediocre - it's embarrassingly bad. This movie has more howlers than the average comedy - and all of those lines are, of course, unintentionally funny.

Perhaps one of the reasons I experienced such an unexpectedly negative reaction while watching Pearl Harbor is that the movie had the potential to be so much better. The cast is solid, the special effects are first-rate, and the subject is inherently compelling. The events which shattered the stillness of the morning of December 7, 1941 obsess history buffs to this day. Aside from 1970's Tora! Tora! Tora!, no feature film has effectively captured the scope of the Japanese offensive of that day. Sadly, while Pearl Harbor presents a credible, digitally-enhanced re-creation of the attack, that's one of the few things the movie accomplishes. From start to finish, the centerpiece action takes only 35 minutes - or about 20% of the overall running time.

Pearl Harbor is a Titanic wannabe that falls far short of the mark. Even those who don't appreciate Titanic are likely to acknowledge how much better it is than Pearl Harbor on nearly every level. Both films suffer from areas of historical error, but, while Titanic manages to overcome its factual discrepancies by presenting an absorbing spectacle, Pearl Harbor sinks beneath the weight of its own split personality: ponderous and self-important on one hand, pandering to an uneducated audience on the other. Plus, while Titanic earns its three-plus hour running length, Pearl Harbor doesn't. It has to incorporate a lame prologue and out-of-place third act in order to pad things out to a final screen time of 183 minutes.

Historically, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor represented one of the key actions of World War II, because it sucked the United States into the war. The attack, devised by Admiral Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese fleet, brought the brunt of the Japanese military power to bear on Hawaii. In a two-hour period, 18 ships were sunk or badly damaged (including the Arizona, which split in two then went under; the West Virginia; and the Oklahoma, which rolled over), 188 planes were destroyed (with an additional 159 damaged), and more than 3500 Americans were killed or wounded. Fortunately for the American Pacific fleet, the three aircraft carriers based at Pearl Harbor were out to sea at the time of the attack.

On the day after, President Roosevelt stood before Congress, and, after declaring December 7, 1941 to be a "date that will live in infamy", he urged that a declaration of war be issued. Meanwhile, half a world away, the Japanese celebrated their victory, but Yamamoto wondered out loud whether the attack had been the best thing, saying, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." Indeed the Pearl Harbor air raid united the American people in a way that no other event in the 20th century did.

Pearl Harbor depicts all of this (and more - the third act is an account of Dolittle's April 1942 bombing raid on Tokyo, launched from the Hornet), but does so in a slapdash fashion. It is possible to argue that Pearl Harbor's agenda is too ambitious for a single motion picture: tell a love story, represent the historical situation, and offer a concluding catharsis that does not come naturally to the tale of what transpired at Pearl Harbor. The movie does many things, but only succeeds in doing a few of them well. As a history lesson, Pearl Harbor can best be described as incomplete and perfunctory. This would easily be forgivable if the picture had more to offer in other areas; unfortunately, it doesn't. So the film's flawed historical context becomes its key selling point.

The story is presented from the point-of-view of three central characters: bomber pilots Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), and nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), the woman who loves, and is loved by, these two best friends. Rafe and Danny are closer than brothers until Evelyn comes between them. But, before the romantic triangle can be sorted out, Pearl Harbor is attacked, and all three are called to perform acts of outrageous heroism (much as one would expect from men and women populating any Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay film).

The central problem with the film is not the reliance upon special effects or the overlong running time - it's the lack of dramatic tension and empathy for the protagonists. Largely because it employs clichés and contrivances to push the narrative forward, the screenplay never draws us into the characters' world, nor does it involve us in their romance (certainly not the way Titanic does). Shortcuts, like montages and flashbacks, are used depict the depth of the characters' feelings for one another. From the beginning, we are subjected to a series of badly conceived and executed scenes, such as one in which two kids accidentally head down a runway in a crop-dusting plane (shades of Anakin's experience in The Phantom Menace), or another in which an eight-year old hits an adult with a 4x4. The dialogue is equally atrocious. People say things like "I'm not anxious to die, just anxious to matter" and "There's nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer." And we're stuck with a soap opera-style storyline that features brawling as a form of male bonding, people returning from the dead, unexpected pregnancies, and a woman torn between two lovers. Through it all, we are strangely detached from the situation; until the attack comes, Pearl Harbor is not an involving experience.

For about 35 minutes, as the bombs are falling and things are blowing up, Pearl Harbor takes off. Suddenly, we're no longer stuck with dumb character interaction and painful dialogue. Instead, we can sit back and watch the devastation unfold. It's impressive, especially when the Arizona goes down. But, when it comes to an end and the last torpedo has been launched, the movie still has nearly an hour to go. That isn't a good thing, because then the characters start surfacing again, and they're not as interesting as a sinking ship or an exploding plane.

I fault the script and the director (who uses frequent cuts, lots of slow motion shots, and even smears vasoline on the lens for certain scenes), not the actors. Kate Beckinsale and Alec Baldwin (playing General Dolittle) give especially strong performances. It's worth noting that Beckinsale is dressed and shot (using backlighting and soft focus) in a way that makes her look like a female screen icon of the '40s. Affleck and Hartnet are fine, although Affleck comes across as a little too cocky to be truly likable. Cuba Gooding Jr. has a supporting role as a cook who gets involved in the action (the character has no back story - I guess we're supposed to assume it's similar to that of the hero Gooding portrayed in Men of Honor). And Jon Voight offers a credible Franklin Roosevelt. While Pearl Harbor doesn't have any big-name, A-list stars (the budget couldn't support them), there are a lot of familiar faces, including those of Colm Feore (as Admiral Kimmel), Tom Sizemore (as the mechanic, Earl), Mako (Admiral Yamamoto), and Dan Aykroyd (Captain Thurman, the tactical expert).

You know a movie is being ineffective when you're thinking about all the things it's doing wrong before five minutes have elapsed. Pearl Harbor is designed as a crowd-pleaser, and, as is too often the case with that sort of a motion picture, it values good looking sets, attractive performers, and flashy special effects over an intelligent screenplay. And, despite trying, Pearl Harbor can't even follow the Titanic formula properly. This movie is not completely without value, but there's a lot of sub-par dross to be sifted through to get to the worthwhile material. If you're really interested in what happened at Pearl Harbor, rent Tora! Tora! Tora! or one of many detailed documentaries. If you crave a tragic romance, Titanic is one of many choices. Pearl Harbor only shines when the special effects eclipse the "human element" - better to wait until it's available on video and you have the option of using a fast-forward button.

Pearl Harbor (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 3:04
U.S. Release Date: 2001-05-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1