Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, May 25, 2001

Ben Affleck, left, and Josh Harnett, right, are blah
as the leads in "Pearl Harbor."

Infamy revisited

Disney serves up a fast-food
version of Pearl Harbor

Not da bomb: Other reviews

By Scott Vogel

PEARL Harbor" cannot be recommended too highly, for it has much to teach. True, its lessons have almost nothing to do with military history or the awfulness of war, but viewers hoping for an authentic window onto the events of Dec. 7, 1941, are missing the point. First and foremost, this is a film about creative tampering with history, of emphasizing some events and downplaying others, all in the name of providing a disturbing but ultimately uplifting experience for the popcorn crowd.

In fact, one can scarcely imagine a more instructive guide to the diabolical revisionism of contemporary Hollywood than "Pearl Harbor," which somehow manages to reduce one of the most important days in military history into Act 2 of a three-act melodrama.

Which is not to say it's a film that will live in infamy. The battle scenes, when they come, are thrillingly photographed and superbly staged. Director Michael Bay is in his element when taking viewers through an experience during which they have little time to think -- as bombs drop from every angle and chaos reigns. When the camera follows an armor-piercing bomb falling from a Japanese Kate onto the USS Arizona's second turret, the stomach drops and vertigo takes over, a perfect preamble to the wholesale carnage viewers will shortly witness.

The scene presages a number of similar virtuosic set pieces, each more visceral and horrifying than the one before. Other than that, however, there is little meaning one can deduce from the battle sequence, which makes it a perfect evocation of the events of Dec. 7. Hollywood, it seems, is at its best when depicting chaos on a grand scale.

But as mentioned earlier, the 45-minute sequence that gives "Pearl Harbor" its name is only one component of a nearly three-hour film, the other parts having been chosen to satisfy different demographics of the moviegoing public. You can almost hear the folks at Disney plotting their strategy: "OK, we've hooked the 'Top Gun' teenage boy market with the battle scenes. Now, what do we do for the girls?" The answer, apparently, was to graft a romantic triangle onto the proceedings, which begins when Rafe (Ben Affleck), a cocky flying ace, falls for a beautiful nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) during those last few halcyon days before the war. The triangle's third point is Rafe's best buddy, Danny (Josh Hartnett), who, unlike his friend, does poorly with the ladies. (This is because "his old man used to run him down a lot," Rafe puts it, with typical psychological acumen.)

The characters, amalgamations of every war movie cliché from "Wings" to "Saving Private Ryan," are stuck in a kind of celluloid hell, forced to utter dialogue like "What's gonna become of us, Rafe?" to which Rafe replies, inevitably, "Well, the future's not exactly in our hands, is it?" If you didn't know better, you'd swear that "Pearl Harbor" was aiming for parody. But Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer have never shown much interest in genre-bending humor (see "The Rock" and "Armageddon") and in any case are too busy satisfying the demands of the film's various audiences.

Once the doomed lovers have spent the obligatory evening in the swing club (complete with professional-quality lindy-hoppers), once they've spent one last crazy night together (in a ship's cargo container hoisted above the water), "Pearl Harbor" at last sets sail for the harbor in which it feels safest -- and the picture enters its action phase.

Despite serious nearsightedness and a penchant for clumsiness, Rafe has been hotly pursued by the Eagle Squadron to fly alongside British forces overseas, a position he accepts, saying goodbye to Evelyn from behind a revolving door. Unsurprisingly, upon his arrival in Europe, he is immediately shot down. Equally unsurprising is the fact that Rafe is still alive, although this is far more obvious to movie audiences than Evelyn and Danny, who are presumably not as well schooled in Hollywood conventions.

The pair, now stationed together at Pearl Harbor, mourn the loss of Rafe briefly and then forget about him during an evening in which Danny, Evelyn and a pile of parachutes all figure prominently. True love has just begun to bloom for Evelyn again (no wonder she says her goodbyes through revolving doors!) when Rafe reappears, discovering to his great disappointment that Danny no longer does poorly with the ladies. Hawaii, meanwhile, ostensibly forms the backdrop of this soap opera, though evidence of Hawaii residents is decidedly scant (does a table lamp adorned with a mechanical hula girl count?).

With regard to most other films, the preceding sketch would be unfairly reductive. In the case of "Pearl Harbor," it's charitable. The setup scenes are brief and nearly contentless, and then spliced together with the same randomness Bay brings to the battle sequences. In the latter, however, the strategy heightens the drama. Here, it kills it. Had the director paid closer attention to detail, taking care to set up Danny's interest in Evelyn early on, or surprised us in some way -- when Rafe returns, say, or when the Japanese arrive on Oahu -- "Pearl Harbor" might have been an infinitely better film. But paying attention is something Hollywood finds difficult these days, its increasingly scatterbrained movies enough to make you reach for a bottle of Ritalin.

Just in the nick of time, bombs begin to fall on Pearl Harbor, and the picture finally achieves authenticity, an emotional power all the more shocking given the fakery that preceded it. But then Act 3 begins, a more or less dubious account of the bombing of Tokyo by Col. James Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) and his raiders. There's much grit and flag-waving as Hans Zimmer's music swells, but like Doolittle's raid itself, the film's final sequence provides little sense of victory, posing more questions than it has time to answer before the end credits roll.

Whatever their independent merits, Doolittle's raiders have no place in a film about the events of Dec. 7, which by themselves contain enough heroism, courage and god-awful tragedy for 10 films. It was a day of horror, yes, but also a day whose negative lessons changed the course of world history. The America that would shortly take its lead role on the world stage was built on the backs of the men and women who died at Pearl Harbor, which is why these deaths, for all their tragedy, are inspiring and ennobling.

The Pearl Harbor survivors know this. So do even casual readers of military history. Only Hollywood doesn't know this. From inside the Tinseltown Beltway, days like Dec. 7 are nothing more than crushing downers, i.e., box office poison that threatens to scare away the throngs Disney needs in order to recoup its investment. And so we get a quick mobilization of forces, patriotic fervor, rousing speeches from Doolittle ( "There's nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer") and, ultimately, victory.

But the victory, like "Pearl Harbor," is hollow.

Not da bomb

Here's what the other reviewers from
around the country are saying about
"Pearl Harbor":

You can't tell the story of Pearl Harbor without blowing a lot of things up, but with so much money to burn, the filmmakers could have channeled a little more to script and character development.

Ben Affleck is at his most boring as Rafe McCawley, who trains as a fighter pilot with childhood buddy Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett, going toe-to-toe with Affleck for dullness).

The script by Randall Wallace is forced and foolish, an epic soap opera. The first half of "Pearl Harbor" is spent on Rafe and Danny's tedious friendship and their monotonous relationships with Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale).

The star of the film is the 40-minute attack sequence, but the battle isn't terribly artful or original in capturing the horrors of war. The violence is sanitized for sake of a PG-13 rating.

For all its feebleness, "Pearl Harbor" will be seen. Disney has marketed the stuffing out of the movie, making it seem like a patriotic duty to see it.

-- By David Germain, Associated Press

Watching "Pearl Harbor" often feels like reading a book that's already been underlined. The love story follows a predictable course, often lapsing into cliche and ultimately falling into the open arms of sentimentality. It has been pointed out that "Pearl Harbor" has more in common with "Titanic" than with other war movies. That should tell you something.

Even filmmakers as shameless as Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay need a story to wrap around attack sequences. They've chosen a romance that forces us to spend too much time watching Ben Affleck, an actor who seems boundlessly determined to act ... well ... determined.

-- Robert Denerstein, Scripps Howard News Service

Cutting historical corners to haul in tons of Hollywood scrap, director Michael Bay and writer Randall Wallace channel a world-changing national trauma into rah-rah action romance. The movie lacks passion, tragedy and historical weight. It's a Pearl Harbor coloring book.

Bay's advertising background betrays itself in one button-pushing iconic image after another, such as children in Christmas angel wings framed by low-flying Zeroes. His shots can't stand up for more than a second, and he's wholly unable to develop character.

Revisionist, "Pearl Harbor" isn't. It's all good guys vs. bad guys, with Yamamoto as Darth Vader.

-- Bob Campbell, Newhouse News Service

It's not as if an epic love story can't draw us into history; James Cameron did that with "Titanic" four years ago. Obviously, Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay were paying attention: "Pearl Harbor" seems to have been slavishly modeled after that film, right down to the schmaltzy song that Faith Hill bellows over closing credits.

While the filmmakers have copied the formula, they've failed to establish an emotional foundation for the love story, which is rather remarkable given the 90 minutes spent on it. Believe me, Dec. 7 can't come soon enough.

Japanese-American groups have expressed concern that "Pearl Harbor" might stir anti-Japanese sentiment. They should be more troubled by groan-inducing dialogue that has Japanese officers uttering poetic bromides like: "While Pearl Harbor still sleeps in the morning mist, we will attack."

Remember "Pearl Harbor"? We will, but, sadly, for the missed opportunities.

-- Glenn Whipp, Los Angeles Daily News

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