|© 2001-2010 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
Back in the halcyon days of 2001, in an ever over-commercialized world,
Memorial Day assumed the onus of being 1) the "official" start of summer; 2) the
weekend one film studio releases a mindless blockbuster; and 3) just another
excuse for business to run special sales. As with Christmas and most other
holidays, we have sadly forgotten why we are celebrating. Originally the holiday
was called Decoration Day and it initially dates from 1866 as a means to
commemorate those who fought and died in the American Civil War, but it wasn't
until the administration of US President Lyndon Johnson that it became a formal
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the start of World War II in 2001,
Disney, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay have concocted
Pearl Harbor, a would-be epic love story-cum-war movie whose release was timed
to the Memorial Day weekend. But rather than receiving a hearty thank you (as
Steven Spielberg did for recreating the Normandy Invasion on D-Day in Saving
Private Ryan), these guys are likely to receive a hearty raspberry. While the
intention may have been noble, the execution is disappointing.
Undoubtedly many will draw comparisons between this film and the 1997
blockbuster Titanic. Both are period dramas built around a sappy love triangle that
unfolds in the midst of great tragedy, but Michael Bay is no James Cameron.
Whereas Cameron was able to overcome his own trite script with a dazzling
directorial technique, Bay falls back on his origins as a commercials director. Many
sequences are shot and edited in quick cuts with odd camera angles. One pivotal
love scene plays out like a cross between a Chris Isaak video (sans the music)
and a Calvin Klein perfume commercial. Whereas Titanic seemingly had a heart
(literally and figuratively, after all that big diamond that was given to Rose wasn't
called "The Heart of the Ocean" for nothing), Pearl Harbor is all surface gloss.
Don't misunderstand: the period detail is there, it just feels empty. That a couple
of the performers actually manage to make an impression almost seems a fluke.
Writer Randall Wallace has gone on record about using Titanic as a template
for his script as well as discussing his clashes with the director that led to his
walking away from the project and allowing Bay to bring in addition writers who
went uncredited. (According to Wallace, Bay wanted to beef up the action for the
men at the expense of the women's roles, something that sadly shows in the final
film.) Whomever was responsible for the turgid, cliché-ridden dialogue that all the
actors are forced to spout should step forward and take the responsibility. Wallace
shouldn't have to shoulder the total blame.
Initially the writer (who hails from Tennessee) had come up with the idea of
a story of two brothers from the South who dream of flying, grow up to become
pilots and eventually compete for the affections of the same woman. Of course,
this was to be set against the backdrop of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Along the
way, the story got changed a bit: the brothers became best friends, the girl
became a nurse, and rather than just tell of the attack, the film also covered
events into 1942. Now there have been several Hollywood movies that have used
the attack on Hawaii as a subplot. One immediately thinks of 1970's Tora! Tora!
Tora! that worked hard to be fair to both the American or Japanese sides, or
perhaps 1953's Oscar-winning Best Picture From Here to Eternity.
Clearly, Pearl Harbor wants to be the final word. The film unfolds at a
leisurely pace, with a prologue set in 1920s Tennessee when young friends Rafe
McCawley and Danny Walker dream of taking to the skies and actually briefly do in
Danny's father's crop duster. Flash-forward to 1940 and the boys have grown into
Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, respectively. There's a lengthy expository sequence
showing how they came to meet Nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), with
whom Rafe falls in love. Bay's handling of these scenes is severely lacking. Clearly
out of his league, he is unable to trust the material or his actors and his awkward
use of extreme close-ups doesn't help to generate any chemistry between the
stars. (Not that Beckinsale doesn't try to generate enough heat for both, but
Affleck seems curiously detached in his scenes, though he does look raffish in the
Rafe has volunteered to join the R.A.F. and he goes off to England to serve
as a gung ho fighter pilot. Evelyn and Danny (Hartnett) end up stationed in
Hawaii, where the nurses have little to do and the soldiers seemingly only pursue
the nurses. There are numerous shots of Affleck looking pensive as he scribbles a
love letter or of Beckinsale posed against a sunset dreamily drafting a missive to
her sweetheart. While the conventions are old-fashioned, the actors have been
directed to play them in a contemporary fashion that undercuts everything.
Close to the halfway mark in the movie, Rafe is shot down in Europe and
presumed dead. Danny and Evelyn awkwardly avoid one another and then start to
grow closer. Despite the camera work, Hartnett and Beckinsale generate sparks
and make an interesting couple. Indeed, Hartnett emerges as the breakout
performer. While he has offered fine supporting work in other films like The Virgin
Suicides and The Faculty, rarely has he been allowed to shine on screen as he
does here, projecting that ineffable "star quality". (As it turns out, this was
another fluke of the movie's.)
The decision to pad the film by including sequences of the Japanese
planning the attack (featuring Mako as Admiral Yamamoto), Washington's
reactions to the peace negotiations (with an nearly unrecognizable Jon Voight in a
superb turn as FDR), and Naval Intelligence's tracking of Japanese transmissions
(embodied by Dan Aykroyd), as well as an entire third-act built around the raid on
Tokyo by then-Lt. Colonel James Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) make the film feel
overstuffed. (In fact the last hour or so of the film was semi-fictionalized in 1944's
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which also blended romance and a war story to
similarly formulaic results.)
The large cast is egregiously wasted in underdeveloped roles, with particular
attention to Cuba Gooding Jr. (as real-life cook-turned-hero Dorrie Miller in what
amounts to a glorified cameo), Ewen Bremner (as an enlistee with a stutter), and,
especially, the actresses cast as nurses Catherine Kellner, Jennifer Garner, Sara
Rue and former model James King.
Pearl Harbor does contain visually stunning special effects, but here again
Bay and his CGI team have overdone it. The insistent explosions and the fiery
spectacle ultimately leave the viewer desensitized. There's no reference for the
overwhelming tragedy (as there was in Titanic) since the audience doesn't really
get to know any of the men on the ships (our heroes are pilots, not sailors).
Ultimately, what can be said about the film is that it is a disappointment, because
it tries to do too much. It also confirms what most industry people suspected:
Michael Bay is not in the same league as James Cameron.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sustained intense war sequences,
images of wounded, brief sensuality
and some language
Running time: 183 mins.