Given the success of recent war films like Saving Private Ryan and Enemy at the Gates, it’s hardly surprising that producers are hoping to make Pearl Harbor the summer’s box office triumph. What could be more patriotic than a cinematic homage to the war that hit America on its home front? Early on the morning of December 7, 1941, a “day that will live in infamy,” a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor plunged our reluctant nation headfirst into World War II. We had not only fascism to defeat, but also our own country to defend. The choice, perhaps for the last time, was a clear one.
The story of Pearl Harbor is told from the vantage point of boyhood friends Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett), who fall in love with the same woman. Yes, that tried and true plot that is so often superimposed on war films.
Director Michael Bay’s romanticized epic comes as a good history primer to a generation so woefully uninformed that a recent contestant on Street Smarts thought Pearl Harbor was in Florida. So, if the crowds turn out in droves for the film, so much the better. But don’t expect Pearl Harbor to achieve on the same level as Saving Private Ryan. That film succeeded masterfully because it told a simple story with such brutal honesty and realism that you felt you had a stake in its well-drawn characters.
Unfortunately, Bay tries to do too much with his film, packing into its three-hour running time all the expected conventions. He wants it to be a little bit Titanic, a little bit Top Gun and a little bit major war epic. You have a picture-perfect nurse falling in love with a handsome pilot; a stuttering, goofy redhead who falls for a blond bombshell; a black soldier who’s been relegated to ship’s cook duties but will have his chance to be a hero; and the list goes on and on. Despite the film’s noble intentions, it is standard and predictable fare.
Rafe and Danny, as the set-up scene shows us, have been bosom buddies since they were kids playing pilots in their fathers’ crop dusters in Tennessee. They go on to become first class pilots. After enlisting, Rafe quickly falls in love with pretty little nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale). They have a whirlwind romance, say all the trite lines lovers about to be separated are sure to say, then bid each other farewell. Evelyn and the rest of the gang ship out to Pearl Harbor while Rafe, who is just itching to be a combat fighter, volunteers to join the Brits and show off those pilot skills. He’s shot down and counted among the dead. But wait—this is in the first 20 minutes, so we know he’ll come back. He’s the star. You don’t kill the star in the first 20 minutes of a three-hour epic. As Rafe’s best pal Danny comforts the grieving Evelyn, we already know the rest of this story. They’ll fall in love; Rafe will show up one day; and oh no, their friendship will be tested.
The imminent bombing of Pearl Harbor is the backdrop of the triangle. As Evelyn and Danny fall in love, the Japanese are making plans for their massive surprise strike and the Americans (Jon Voight plays FDR) are still sitting the war out. Bay tries to build suspense for the attack, but we know it’s coming and he does nothing to make this pivotal chapter of history particularly gripping.
He does try hard not to make the Japanese too much the enemy (it wouldn’t be prudent to piss off our present-day economic allies). He even has the wisest line of the film delivered by the Japanese admiral. When he’s congratulated by an underling for his brilliant military strategy, he replies sadly, “A brilliant man would find a way not to fight a war.” Alas, the poor fellow didn’t really mean to take out our Pacific fleet. My favorite line of the film, however, is, “We have achieved surprise,” something Bay’s film never manages to do.
Bay doesn’t seem to fully grasp the import nor the impact of that devastating attack. The country that had once considered itself invincible learned that it was not. The film’s drawn-out build-up to the actual bombing features sailors reading surf guides, holding boxing bouts, swimming with the girls or hitting the hula bars; and nurses dealing with nothing more serious than sunburn—all in period costumes on period sets that feel precisely like costumes and sets. The film lacks authenticity. It’s about as real as the airbrushed, vividly colored photos on the old war posters.
The most authentic scene is when the base hospital is inundated with casualties. The focus goes soft to reflect the chaos, as one frantic nurse stands amid the carnage, crying, “I don’t know what to do.” That moment captures a slice of realism the rest of the film does not.
Though Affleck’s character is written as an old-fashioned mixture of naivete and nobility—don’t try counting how many times he says, “just get me in a plane!”—he gives an expectedly good performance. Hartnett, who plays the more realistic character, is far more charming. Their friendship is Pearl Harbor’s real love story and makes for a fairly moving scene at the film’s end. As the woman they both love, Beckinsale is hopelessly hollow. She’s an adornment, not a flesh-and-blood character. She doesn’t act so much as she poses, showing up in each scene in full makeup, perfectly coifed hair and one lovely costume after another. Even when she’s in bed, she wears lipstick. As good as Beckinsale looks, there’s no meat to her character, which means there is not much meat to the love story.
Most of the film’s flaws must be chalked up to Randall Wallace’s overly-sentimental script, which includes such trite lines as “everything in my life has led me up to this point” and “I’m not anxious to die, just anxious to matter.”
Exceptional drama it is not. Still, Pearl Harbor is sure to be a huge box office draw and it’s better than most summer fare will be. But, the subject deserved a far, far better film.
Pearl Harbor (PG-13) HH1/2 Directed by Michael Bay. Starring Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett.