Screenplay : Randall Wallace
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Ben Affleck (Rafe McCawley), Josh Hartnett (Danny Walker), Kate Beckinsale (Evelyn Johnson), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Doris 'Dorie' Miller), William Lee Scott (Billy), Greg Zola (Anthony Winkle), Tom Sizemore (Earl), Ewen Bremner (Red), Jon Voight (President Franklin D. Roosevelt), Alec Baldwin (General Doolittle), James King (Betty)
Before going into the theater to see Pearl Harbor, I promised myself that I would not base the review around the obvious comparison to James Cameron's Titanic (1997). Yet, as I walked out of the theater three hours later, all I could think about was how badly and unashamedly Pearl Harbor had wanted to be Titanic and how far short it had fallen, which put into even greater relief the pop masterpiece status of Cameron's romantic disaster epic.
It is somewhat unfair to place Pearl Harbor next to Titanic, considering the enormous success of the latter and the overhyped expectations riding on the former. But, the manner in which director Michael Bay, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and screenwriter Randall Wallace have gone about constructing their movie simply begs comparison. After all, it's a hugely expensive, epic-length romantic story set against the backdrop of a major historical disaster. When, in the final few moments, the camera fades into a swirling underwater shot of the sunken U.S.S. Arizona lying on the bottom of Pearl Harbor while the music swells in the background, I almost expected to hear Celine Dion burst out with "My Heart Will Go On" (instead, we're treated to a similar power ballad by Faith Hill over the closing credits, which only reinforces the idea that the filmmakers used a Titanic template in designing the film).
But, despite the nagging structural similarities, Pearl Harbor stumbles where Titanic soared, and the reasons are twofold. First, Randall Wallace, who was so good at blending the intimate and the epic in his screenplay for Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995), simply did not write a very good script. The melodramatic love triangle that fuels the movie's story until and beyond the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor is both clumsy and unmoving, destined (as most love triangles without a clear bad seed are) for an unsatisfactory conclusion.
The other problem is director Michael Bay. Bay has played a large role in shaping the aesthetic of the modern summer action flick with Bad Boys (1995), The Rock (1996), and Armageddon (1998), but he has always had a hard time with character development and realistic drama. He's a cartoon director, and faced with the prospects of dealing with real characters that function as more than two-dimensional action figures with clever dialogue, he's lost. Unlike Cameron (who, in all of his movies, no matter how testosterone-driven or action-packed, has always displayed himself as an unabashed romantic at heart), Bay has no ear for romance or melodrama. The most romantic moment in any of his films is the embarrassing "animal crackers" sequence from Armageddon, which speaks volumes. In Pearl Harbor, he's trying to be something he's not, and his masquerade simply doesn't hold up.
The actual attack sequence (described by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, well played in the movie by Jon Voight, as "a day which will live in infamy") comes about 90 minutes into the three-hour movie, and it is definitely a spectacle to behold. Bay wisely eschews the overly hyperkinetic visual style that drove Armageddon into the ground for something more elegant and powerful, and it is testament to his skill that he gives the attack a gut-churning sense of harrowing verisimilitude while keeping the gore to a PG-13 minimum. It is plainly clear where the movie's $135-million budget has gone, and every dime of it was well spent.
Bay builds the tension initially by cross-cutting between the approaching Japanese fighters and the unaware American troops going about their regular early-morning activities. He then lets loose on the pyrotechnics, giving us a vertiginous point-of-view shot from a bomb as it drops from the belly of a Japanese fighter into the innards of a massive destroyer. The soundtrack is rattled with heavy machine-gun fire and explosives, and Bay creates a sense of complete panic and chaos while simultaneously maintaining order for the viewer, always letting us know where we are and what's at stake. This sequence, which lasts some 40 minutes, is a technical tour de force, scattered with breathtaking visuals, including an elaborate shot of a destroyer tipping over and sinking while hundreds of planes swoop out of the sky. There is so much going on and it is so skillfully orchestrated that you get an uneasy sensation of being in the midst of the violence, always aware of the sheer helplessness of the American troops being bombarded.
Of course, because Pearl Harbor aspires to be a monumental epic, simply recreating the Japanese attack is not enough. So, the attack sequence is bookended by a romantic love triangle between two Army Air Corps pilots who were childhood best buddies, Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), and their romantic interest, a Navy nurse named Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale). Rafe and Evelyn initially fall in love with each other in a meet-cute flashback sequence involving her passing him on his physical even though he doesn't have the required 20/20 vision.
However, when Rafe is shot down while flying for the British air force and is presumed dead, Evelyn carries his torch for a few months and then falls into a relationship with Danny, who is as distraught over the loss of his best friend as Evelyn is over the loss of her lover. One doesn't have to analyze the font size of Ben Affleck's name on the movie poster to know that he'll be back, and Rafe returns just in time to find out that his best friend and girlfriend have become an item in his absence before the Japanese drop their bombs.
All of this is told in the tediously drawn-out opening hour and a half of the movie, which suffers not only from Wallace's corny dialogue and Bay's emphatic use of extreme close-ups to convey emotional intensity, but also a complete lack of chemistry between the three leads. James Cameron's script for Titanic was no masterpiece of subtlety, but Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet clicked and made it all work. Affleck and Beckinsale, on the other hand, generate little heat on screen, and despite a semi-steamy sexual interlude in an artistically arranged pile of parachutes, Hartnett and Beckinsale don't fare much better together. The love-triangle plot relies absolutely on a sense of true romantic tragedy, and it is here that Pearl Harbor simply does not deliver the goods.
It does deliver the nationalistic goods, though. In fact, Pearl Harbor may be one of the most shamelessly patriotic movies in years, far surpassing Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998), which tempered its absolutist flag waving with the grisly depiction of the true human costs of war, even "The Great War." Pearl Harbor rests squarely on uncomplicated notions of bravery, sacrifice, and national identity, although it treads carefully when dealing with Japanese, throwing in just enough dialogue to suggest that they didn't want to attack, but felt compelled to do so.
Still, ending the movie on the Pearl Harbor attack would be too much of a downer, so the plot continues through the Doolittle Raid, in which American B-52s made a bombing run over Tokyo, taking out several warehouses and factories. It isn't much when compared to the enormous spectacle of the American defeat in Hawaii, but it's enough to lead into a ponderous voice-over that explains (in case we didn't get it) the resilience of the United States and how the Doolittle Raid led to a sense of victory that ultimately won the war.
This lack of subtlety is endemic to the movie as a whole, but it almost works in its own way. If the filmmakers had focused a little more on the heroics of the war that forms the backbone of the movie and less on the ham-handed romantic plot designed to lure in viewers other than teenage boys bent on viewing mass destruction, Pearl Harbor might have come closer to being the glorious pop masterpiece it so desperately wanted to be.
©2001 James Kendrick