Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor

USA, 2001. Rated PG-13. 183 minutes.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Alec Baldwin, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Dan Ackroyd, James King, Ewen Bremner, William Lee Scott, Catherine Kellner
Writer: Randall Wallace
Music: Hans Zimmer
Cinematographer: John Schwartzman
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay
Director: Michael Bay


Grade: B- Review by Alison Tweedie-Perry

C ynicism is not a friend to a movie like Pearl Harbor--an iconic film in an iconoclastic age. I am not a schlock apologist (except in the case of guilty pleasures), but director Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor isn't schlock, and I'm not making any apologies for it. While all its problems don't rest with it being a throwback in the wrong time, there is quite a bit about Pearl Harbor that I found to be well done and welcome in this cynical age.

There is no glory in war, which is why we impose glory upon it, to make it easier to deal with, so the people who fought and survived and the people at home have something to help them accept it. Recent war movies have been metaphorical psychological portraits of humanity's foibles writ large on the field of battle, political screeds against unjust governments both friend and foe, or exercises in guilt-purging. This is not to say they haven't been brilliant films. But what about the sort of clear-eyed film made to honor people and what they thought they were fighting for, without the modern political correctness and revisionism that robs both the survivors and the dead of their honor? Is there room anymore for un-ironic heroes who aren't totems for our deepest hidden demons, but rather idealizations of our fondest hopes of human accomplishment?

This is an old-fashioned heroism-because-we-need-heroes story. It works, and I do believe it works for the most part, because it makes a point of making heroes out of everyone who died at Pearl Harbor. As over the top as the movie's heroes are, those who died at Pearl Harbor and the men who lived to fight in World War II and in all our other wars, in some way, deserve to be glorified to that extent. If one can abandon the jaundiced eye of the modern filmgoer and go into Pearl Harbor without political agendas or anticipating a masterpiece (or a travesty), the movie is good enough. Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor opens with our heroes as young boys, then jumps to early 1941 when they're in their 20s and are both Army pilots. These ten minutes establish all the character traits that we're going to get about Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett): they share a lifelong friendship and love of flying, the older one's an overprotective hot-dog who isn't so good with letters, the younger is sensitive and slightly worshipful of the older and isn't too confident when he's not in an airplane. Much has been made about the love story that makes up the first part of the film being a soap opera. It is and not a particularly good one. Depending upon how you feel about soap operas and the three lead actors, you may find it unbearable. If you are a fan of any of the stars, you can just sit and admire how pretty they are, since Bay lights them all, especially Affleck, as if the sun exists merely to burnish their golden flesh. There are a few charming and amusing moments, but the primary relationship between Rafe and the Navy nurse he meets, Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), doesn't click, mainly because Affleck and Beckinsale have no chemistry whatsoever. Their acting is fine; there's just no spark. This fizzle becomes even clearer later in the film when Evelyn and Danny fall in love, because the chemistry between Hartnett and Beckinsale sizzles.

There's little point in describing the plot, since everyone is going to see this movie for the attack. The attack is jaw dropping. It's teeth clenching. It's spectacular and realistic and scary. It's everything you could want it to be. Our heroes manage to get in some airplanes and shoot down some Japanese Zero fighter planes. (This is based in fact. Two American Army pilots did get up in their planes and shot down 13 Japanese fighters). The aftermath is poignant and upsetting. The president (Jon Voight) is distraught and declares war. A difficult, dangerous, and largely symbolic counterattack raid led by Col. James Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) is launched. (The film's portrayal of the raid is also mainly factual.) Some of the raiders come back and some don't. They are all heroes.

What surprised me about the film was not the larger-than-life heroism of the leads, but the depth of the portrayal of the bombing. Yes, it's one of the most, if not the most, spectacular battle scenes put on film, but it's not spectacular in the sense of "Wow! Look at that! Isn't that cool!" It was a harrowing attack to sit through, and engaged me almost as much as the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan did--hand to mouth in fear and awe, body tensed in anticipation of each new destruction of hundreds of lives. Only in two brief instances does Bay overplay it--employing hackneyed devices of the fallen flag and an innocent doggie--practically handing us an engraved invitation to be cynical and remove ourselves from the immediacy and horror of the carnage. It is an easy feeling to shake as the sequence continues, though. The attack scene doesn't make war seem wonderful, nor does the retaliatory raid portrayed later in the film. It shows how horrific it must have been to wake up into your normal world on a Sunday morning, not on alert because you thought you were safe, to have bombs and torpedoes destroy your ship and kill a great many of your mates.

Part recruiting poster, part love-letter, part memorial, part propaganda--Pearl Harbor wants to be the sort of movie released in America during the war. It has the sort of corny dialogue one expects when one watches an old war movie. an old wartime film?It has the sort of soapy love story one expects when one watches an old wartime romance. It could have come straight from Hollywood's World War II American-propaganda machine, but for the various concessions made to today's political correctness and what we in our smaller world know to be "the truth" about the attack.

Unfortunately, such updating, necessary though it might be, throws the film off kilter. Grand heroism demands grand villainy, but modern understanding (not to mention international marketing) won't accept the way Americans actually thought of "the enemy" back then. This is partly why war movies aren't made this way anymore, unless we're battling aliens. A realistic, humanized villain going against a larger-than-life hero tends to make the hero look silly. In a sense, it might have been better for the film if it didn't attempt to explain the Japanese position. Perhaps the heroes wouldn't have seemed so outlandish if the film had shown only the menace of the Japanese readying for attack and not introduced the Admiral's seeming reluctance to follow through on "what had to be done." (Though, apparently, it is true that the Admiral said "We have awakened a sleeping giant.") Of course, had that happened, the film would have been blasted more than it has been for being politically incorrect, and any thought of showing it in Japan would have gone right out the window.

Of course, an easier way to fix the problem of cartoon heroes is to make them three-dimensional characters. The primary problem with Pearl Harbor is that even a film made during Hollywood's propaganda heyday could have bothered to give us lead characters with something more than half-sketched characteristics. The boys are heroic and the girl is there for them to fight over. There's not much more to the three of them than to be the embodiment of those who were there. Much has been made of this movie's similarities to Titanic, but that epic succeeded in creating real characters, especially Kate Winslet's Rose, that not only start off with more than characteristics, but grow throughout the course of the film based on their experiences within it. Rafe, Danny, and Evelyn aren't real characters in the beginning, and they aren't real characters by the end. Only Rafe makes a bit of a change once he's seen combat and no one else has, and then he's simply more morose and intense. This isn't the fault of the actors, who are all good enough, but of Randall Wallace's script (I'm one of the few people I know who thought the characters in his Braveheart were not fully realized either) and Michael Bay's focus on the attack.
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Bay and Wallace depend too much on the fact that any soldier, sailor, or nurse who was present at the bombing will pull the heartstrings of all but the most cynical American viewer, but that fact remains. The Japanese launched an early morning surprise attack on December 7, 1941. Two pilots did the best they could to get up into the air and shoot down some Japanese planes. A nurse with little experience had to learn wartime triage and resorted to marking those who could be helped with her lipstick for lack of anything else. A black cook, not allowed to handle weapons in the segregated Navy, performed with valor beyond what the regulations "allowed" and received a medal. Many men aboard the U.S.S. Arizona were killed when a Japanese bomb sank it. Many more men were trapped when the U.S.S. Oklahoma capsized. The United States' Pacific fleet was destroyed. Two thousand, three hundred, eighty-eight Americans died. Pearl Harbor earnestly shows all of this, and because of that, it is a moving, effective film.

A note on my viewing of the film: I watched Pearl Harbor in Annapolis, Maryland, home to the U.S. Naval Academy on the day of the Academy's commencement. A great many people in the audience were future Naval officers or active military, or were the friends and relatives of active military personnel. I myself am a relative of an active sailor, and am the descendant of a long line of Naval officers, some of whom served in World War II. The tone of the audience was muted and somber. There was no applause at the end of the film as I have heard there was in other parts of the country. However, there wasn't the derisiveness of a disappointed audience at the end, either. The mood was solemn as a great many people pondered the potential for such an action in their future. Many of them saw themselves or their loved ones on the screen. For that audience, Pearl Harbor was a memorial to their forbears and a reminder of what being in the military means. I don't think any of them found it a disservice to the people in uniform who died at Pearl Harbor or anywhere else in America's wars.

Review © May 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Touchstone Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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