Before the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor, we were a pretty, innocent, and simple folk. We all looked like Ben Affleck, Josh Hartness, or Kate Beckinsale. Sure, we had our faults. We drank a bit and were awkward with the girls. There was racism and stuff; there was complacency, and dumb, technologically ignorant admirals who should have been sounding the klaxons long before the Japanese attacked. After all, the Japanese did everything but ring up Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House and announce they were coming. But hey, the countryside was gorgeous and lush, and we were all playing catch or golf or lounging around the beautiful Honolulu beaches. After the attack, well, you know ... coming of age, loss of innocence. We became an ugly, crowded, smelly, complicated country, losing our sepia tones and contending with social problems and divisions, with TV and bad airline service, with the Net and all that. SPOILAGE WARNING. (Read more.)
That's more or less the message of Pearl Harbor, the bloated epic by Michael Bay that purports to capture America's defining moment as it was drawn into the world's most awful war, but instead bogs down almost from the opening shot in a dreary, protracted and curiously unfeeling love story.
It's actually two movies, the better one buried deep inside the first. To begin with, we met the poor but super-wholesome Rafe McCawley (Affleck) and Danny Walker (Hartnett), best pals from Shelby, Tennessee, who -- under interminably complex, global and slow-moving circumstances -- fall in love with the same girl, nurse Evelyn Johnson (Beckinsale). She mopes through this 183 minute drama, sad-eyed and stunned, as if she had an IV pumping Valium into her.
Just in case, you haven't been seeing those trailers all year, the two little rascal stars are stealing and flying their parent's crop-dusting airplanes around even before reaching puberty. You get this funny intuition all that barn-storming and derring-do might lead to the skies over Pearl Harbor one day. (Yes, yes, they tell the recruiters: they were born to fly).
The screenwriter is clearly going for another grand-scale Titanic. Big history, big tragedy. The writers didn't find one of America's most humiliating military defeats big enough to carry the film. So he and Bay wrap all the jazzy bombing, aircraft maneuverings and other action sequences inside this snoozy love story, in which the stars perpetually gaze at one another in sorrow, regret and anticipation. They know pretty quickly -- duh -- that "this war is going to catch up with us one day," as Nurse Johnson actually says. We know it, too. But the movie sure makes us itchy for it to actually happen.
The film should have been content to bring us the story of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, which is rendered with considerable skill as the use of computer animation continues to mature in movies. From the moment the first Zero glides over the mountains, the movie handsomely delivers on a richly-imagined aerial attack and the resulting chaos and tragedy. And thanks to great animation, it's one of the first movies to give us the bullets and bombs' point-of-view, from the planes right into the ships and hangars.
When the explosions are erupting one after another, tracers are tearing up the ground, and one great ship after another is blowing up and rolling over as waves of Japanese planes rip up the napping Pacific Fleet, the movie really works. You see the dimensions of the bone-headed military incompetence, as warships are tied together in the middle of the harbor, unable to fight, move or flee. Like Titanic, but unlike Saving Private Ryan, the gore is softened -- this movie is rated PG-13. A lot of gauzy, fast-framed hospital scenes avoid gaping wounds and severed limbs. But Pearl Harbor does capture the mayhem, suffering, terror and horrific sense of being trapped in a burning, sinking battleship.
The actual attack -- the movie within the movie -- is fast, furious, dramatic and entertaining. Too bad it takes so long to get to it. It does save the movie, however.
Otherwise, it's pompous and heavy-handed, from it's golden opening scenes to the gaseous voice-over narration at the conclusion. We hear grim and prescient declarations from Japanese military officials, and a non-stop symphony of choruses and angel choirs to remind us every few moments that what we are seeing is important and that everything changed after Dec. 7, l941. This Pearl Harbor is so busy signalling its significance that it's like being trapped in high school history class.
Jon Voight reverentially plays Franklin D. Roosevelt, who seems as stunned as everyone else in the movie by almost everything that's happening. Cuba Gooding plays Dorie Miller, a black cook on board a U.S. ship who grabs a machine gun and becomes one of the first Americans to fight back. Gooding does a decent enough job, but his only purpose seems to be injecting a faint note of reality into a story that turns the pre-war United States into scenes from Norman Rockwell.
To further muddy matters, the movie adds a sub-plot involving Doolittle's Raiders, the U.S. Army Air unit that first bombed Tokyo. That story is riveting; the pilots were on a virtual suicide run, since the bombers they flew couldn't carry enough fuel to return to safe waters, forcing them to ditch over China. But the saga feels like an afterthought in this movie, a strained vehicle for keeping our hunky fly-boys in the plot beyond all reason. The battle at Midway was really the Navy's payback for Pearl Harbor, and the turning point in the Pacific conflict.
Unlike Saving Private Ryan and Titanic, both of which went to extraordinary lengths to be historically accurate, this movie wanders far from the truth. Military historians say the actual battle was very different from that portrayed here -- shorter, more geographically limited, involving fewer planes, buildings and civilians.
One interesting aspect: it's shocking to see the primitive technology just 50 years ago. One reason Pearl Harbor was attacked so successfully is that the U.S. Navy couldn't find a trace of the vast Japanese Naval Task Force that crept 4,000 miles across the ocean to carry out the attack. The fleet simply vanished into the Pacific for weeks, leaving military officials to guess at its location. Cryptographers hadn't yet broken the Japanese code -- which they would a few months later -- and which led to the great U.S. naval victory at Midway. One of the world's first radar stations had just been constructed in Hawaii, but Naval officials unaccountably ignored the flight formations it was picking up in the hours before the attack. Today, satellites and electronic surveillance would have made any such stealth impossible.
But the movie most suffers from the wooden performances of its stars, who seem overwhelmed by the burden of so portraying so much history. At least Voight's Roosevelt is supposed to be concious of history.
In Titanic, a film this ones tries hard to emulate, the characters were were warm and compelling, but the real star was the great ship itself, for nearly a century the embodiment of technological hubris and human fate, bravery and tragedy.
The attack that launched American involvement in World War II did shock the nation and the world, and forced a reluctant bystander into the gruesome global conflict. It was historically more central than the Titanic's sinking and, given the 3,000 dead it left in its wake, should have been as or more powerful a tale. But at the hands of this filmmaker, the story shrinks and sinks.