May 25, 2001 | There hasn’t been anything quite like Pearl Harbor in first-run theaters for a long, long time. Sure, there have been other recent films about World War II -- the extraordinarily vivid Saving Private Ryan, the incoherently muddled Thin Red Line – and dozens of period dramas in which young lovers are torn apart by disasters, armed conflicts and similarly epochal inconveniences. But Pearl Harbor marks the first attempt in several years, maybe decades, to present an unabashedly old-fashioned and irony-free wartime romance infused with gee-whiz pyrotechnics and rah-rah patriotism.
Not content to merely make a movie set in the early 1940s, director Michael Bay (Armageddon) and screenwriter Randall Wallace (Braveheart) have actually concocted a retro epic with the mood and manner of something that could have rolled off the assembly line at MGM or Warner Bros. more than a half-century ago. The scale is appreciably larger: Instead of using miniature models for bombs and planes, Bay and Wallace (and producer Jerry Bruckheimer) achieve far greater verisimilitude with computer-generated special effects. And grand passions are expressed with a tad more sexual frankness. (Even so, characters remain at least partially clothed during clinches, and betray a twinge of hesitation before premarital intercourse.) But these differences of size and sensuality somehow serve to enhance, not undercut, the sense of cinematic classicism.
Pearl Harbor is, for better or worse, the Titanic of World War II movies, and as such, very likely will be enjoyed most fully by two segments of the moviegoing public: Those who chronically complain that they don’t make movies like they used to, and those who are too young to have seen the movies that used to be made.
To make a movie like that, Bay has been forced to curb, at least slightly, his penchant for excess. To his credit, he has mercifully pumped down the volume since his thunderous Armageddon. He still can’t help returning to his roots as a maker of TV commercials and music videos when he resorts to self-consciously beautiful visual shorthand. (There are a few too many spectacular sunrises and sunsets, and way too many slo-mo shots of men striding purposefully toward the camera.) But Bay has learned a lot about telling a story, and a lot more about allowing his characters, and his movie, to pause and savor individual moments. Pearl Harbor clocks in at just under three hours, but it feels neither too long nor too rushed for comfort.
After a brief, picture-postcard pretty prologue in 1923 Tennessee, where two rambunctious farm boys pretend to be fighter pilots, we flash-forward 18 years to find Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) working toward fulfilling their childhood dreams in the U.S. Army Air Corps. The mood in America remains isolationist, but our heroes figure it’s only a matter of time before they get to fight the good fight.
Rafe is the more flamboyant of the pair, a gung-ho hotshot whose risky stunts during basic training alternately amuse and enrage James H. Doolittle (Alec Baldwin), his celebrated commanding officer. (“McCawley,” Doolittle beams, “you remind me of myself 15 years ago!”) When it comes to matters of love and war, Rafe is a young man in hurry. He falls for Army nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) as soon as she plunges a hypodermic into his rump during an induction examination. (He appears to have dyslexia, but she ignores his handicap, and the filmmakers promptly forget all about it.) Alas, Rafe isn’t able to stick around for much romance: Too impatient to wait for U.S. entry into the war raging in Europe, he volunteers for a transfer to the R.A.F., so he can fly in British counterattacks against the Nazi blitz.
Not surprisingly – well, OK, not surprisingly for anyone who has seen two or three other movies like this one – Rafe is reported missing in action, Danny shows up to comfort Evelyn, and one thing leads to another. By the time Rafe reappears – in a scene that, unfortunately, Bay presents too clumsily, and edits too confusingly, to achieve maximum emotional impact – a full-fledged romantic triangle has been forged. And then, of course, everything is tossed asunder by a sudden shift in the winds of war.
In the grand tradition of Hollywood-produced historical epics, Wallace’s script is chockablock full of scenes in which characters voice assumptions and venture predictions that make them sound almost poignantly self-deluded, if not hopelessly thick-witted. Some folks may be hard-pressed not laugh out loud when, after Evelyn announces her transfer to Pearl Harbor in mid-1941, Rafe smiles approvingly and notes: “That’s about as far away from the fighting as you can get.”
It might be even more difficult for other folks – that is, those folks who have read books about World War II, or regularly watch The History Channel -- to keep silent when Admiral Husband Kimmel, commander of the U.S. naval fleet docked at the Hawaiian port, growls at a subordinate: “For four months now Washington's been blowing pink smoke about the threat from Japan. It could make us lose our fighting edge. I'm determined not to let that happen.” Yeah, right. The real Kimmel, as opposed to one portrayed here by actor Colm Feore, grossly underestimated the potential for a sneak attack, and declined to place his forces on full-scale alert. Maybe he, too, thought he was as far away from the fighting as he could get.
As for the actual attack, let’s not mince words: It’s astonishing. In terms of sheer, screaming spectacle – Zeros planes zipping between buildings, battleships exploding and capsizing, U.S. flyboys challenging Japanese invaders to rough-and-tumble dogfights, hundreds of bit players tossed, doused and otherwise scattered about – the 40-minute re-creation of the Dec. 7, 1941 conflagration is just about everything it should be. Actions and consequences are presented logically and lucidly, even as the hellish chaos erupts in horrific intensity. Bay stumbles only when he attempts a pointless stylistic flourish, as he tries to underscore the confusion and terror at an overrun military hospital with fuzzily subjective imagery. During these moments, unfortunately, Pearl Harbor seems, literally and figuratively, unfocused.
Without too much unseemly backwards-bending in the name of political correctness, the filmmakers – mindful, no doubt, of the sizable movie market in Japan – refrain from demonizing the “enemy.” The commanders of the Japanese forces – Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Mako), Commander Minoru Genda (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and others – are depicted with a fair measure of respect and dignity, and the pilots of the planes that drop the bombs are enthusiastic but not conspicuously bloodthirsty. You can get a clearer idea of why the Japanese planned their attack in the first place by viewing Richard Fleischer’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), recently restored for VHS and DVD reissue. Trouble is, Fleischer’s film is, for all its historical veracity, rather drab and flavorless, filled with scenes of gray, grim-faced military men looking at maps and cables while asking each other, “Well, what do you make of that?” Pearl Harbor is – dare I say it? – a lot more fun. And not just because it blows up real good.
Back when they did make movies like this on a regular basis, people like Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson figured prominently in the casts, and first-rate character actors lent strong support. Times have changed, but star power and world-class supporting players remain valuable commodities. Josh Hartnett is too blurry, too indistinct, as though he were awakened from a deep sleep just moments before each scene. (It doesn’t help that he gets the movie’s dopiest line: “I think World War II just started!”) But Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale are as megawatt charismatic as most Old Hollywood luminaries, and they’re surrounded by such standouts as Jon Voight (almost unrecognizable in pince-nez and latex make-up) as President Franklin Roosevelt; Cuba Gooding Jr. as Dorie Miller, a real-life Navy cook who demonstrates courage under fire during the Pearl Harbor attack; and, surprisingly, Dan Aykroyd as a Navy Intelligence code-breaker who suspects something terrible is about to happen.
Alec Baldwin evidences ample dash and panache as Doolittle, the air ace who leads a group of U.S. flyboys for a raid on Japan as payback for the devastating sneak attack. (Presumably, the filmmakers figured that dramatizing this raid was the only way they could make a movie called Pearl Harbor and still have a relatively happy ending.) In fact, Baldwin is so good that he can keep a straight face – and, better still, be sure that members of the audience aren’t shouting rude tings at the screen – when he gazes at the young pilots in his command and confidently predicts an Allied victory over the Axis powers. Why? “There’s nothing stronger,” he says, “than the heart of a volunteer.”