Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, May 25, 2001

Cuba Gooding manages to create depth for his
cameo-role character.

‘Pearl’ honors
what war cost

By Burl Burlingame

It's all about the images. We tend to view history through the prism of memory, the flashcards of experience. Images make it real; everything else is interpretation, storytelling and obscure scholarship. That's why the collective experience of history blossomed with the invention of photography, and why the last century and a half is more vivid in our minds than the last 4,000 years, even though it's just as gone, gone, gone.

Few battles are as well documented as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Not only were the Japanese armed with cameras, but it seems every American not holding a gun was shooting snapshots. Certain slices of time, what photographers call "decisive moments," are burned into our national consciousness: the thundering explosion of the USS Arizona, an Army gunner anxiously scanning the skies from the wreckage of a gutted P-40 fighter, a dead sailor face down on the beach as waves lap peacefully.

Movies work the same way; so does advertising. The trick is to create an image so powerful that it works directly on the subconscious; it defines both the moment and the product. In the case of "Pearl Harbor," advertising has created an event as well as a motion picture. It's difficult to separate the product from the hype, and that's the position Disney wants us in. Because of the close relationship of popular culture with the collective unconscious, from now on, whenever citizens think of the Pearl Harbor attack, what will spring to mind is "Pearl Harbor," whether ivory-tower historians like it or not.

And that's because the amazing images in "Pearl Harbor" are indelible. The movie is not so much crafted as designed, and it's designed to be overwhelming. You're pummeled in the eyes for nearly three hours. You're down on the mat, gasping for breath when it's over. It has the artistic delicacy of a freight train doing a table dance.

On a technical level it's astounding. There is, for example, a three-second shot of the USS Arizona exploding that is not only accurate, it shows better than anything else in the last 60 years why she sank so quickly. Stuff like that is superb visual storytelling, and it's good history.

The digital effects are very good at adding missing elements. But in several shots you can see movie cameras attached to the aircraft. Couldn't those have been removed digitally as well?

On a historical level, though, "Pearl Harbor" is a wish sandwich. Where's the meat? Pure historical accuracy is often sacrificed for the sake of streamlined storytelling -- as when Japanese aircraft fly between buildings and battleships just so they can be in the same shots as the heroes -- but that's no excuse for deliberate errors, particularly not for a production that made all sorts of mouth-noises about "doing it right for the veterans."

Some decisions are judgment calls by director Michael Bay, such as green Zeros and anachronistic dialogue ("I think World War II just started!"). Some are oversights, such as not showing the actors how aircraft controls really work or guns really fire. Others are deliberately dumb, such as showing Japanese planning the attack with big models in some kind of outdoor pond.

The references used by the filmmakers are from other movies, not from history or literature, such as when Yamamoto (inaccurately portrayed as being with the strike force) says, "I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant!" A good line, except that Yamamoto never said it, except in the 1970 film "Tora Tora Tora." Other lines are appropriated from that movie as well, and the ending solution to the dramatic arc is cribbed from "The Bridges at Toko-Ri."

There are two things about "Pearl Harbor" that really add to our understanding of the event. One is the sense of frantic chaos, confusion and overwhelming disaster during the assault, and Bay's pumped-up filmmaking style suits this. The other is the hallucinatory depiction of overwhelmed medical services, and the pure cost in lives. Some of "Pearl Harbor's" most memorable images are of the dead and wounded.

But the technically sophisticated movie will be remembered only as random images. It's artistically awful, with great leaden stretches, frequent lapses in storytelling style, confusing character development and two-bit cliches. The Japanese are stereotypes but so is everyone else. (And it's an all-white Hawaii we're seeing here!) Bay shoots everything in either long shots or extreme close-up, and cuts away every few seconds.

The actors are stranded, flailing, because they're treated like props. Kate Beckinsale is gorgeous but produces no heat; we fail to understand what the two main characters see in her other than her lovely pale skin. The Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett characters are essentially interchangeable. Only Cuba Gooding Jr. gets away with any dignity.

The filmmakers should have watched the 1942 movie "Air Force." In less than 90 minutes, director Howard Hawks created memorable characters, an exciting story and the Pearl Harbor attack as a storytelling device, instead of an excuse for special effects. And hey, they made that movie under budget and on schedule while there was a war on. Imagine.

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