"Pearl Harbor," the much-anticipated three-hour epic about the day of infamy that pushed the United States into World War II, is a movie meant to explode off the screen -- and it's at its best when those explosions are going full blast.
The movie's 40-minute re-creation of the shocking Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor itself is worth the ticket price: a racing, teeming, hellishly exciting sequence that actually makes devastation and death exhilarating. As director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Armageddon") pull out all the visual stops, they show us waves of fleet Japanese bombers and Zero fighter planes streaking through halcyon Sunday morning vistas, battleships ablaze, carriers overturning, sailors trying to claw their way out of flooded ships, plucky American fliers racing to their planes -- and even one amazing shot following a dropped bomb down to its target. This is modern Hollywood technique at its giddiest, most excessive and madly entertaining: war history as a huge incendiary video game.
drama -- and its best comedy (like the scene where Alec Baldwin, as Col. Jimmy Doolittle, passionately exhorts his fliers) is almost all unintentional.
With its heavy romantic triangle (Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett as buddy-fliers torn by their mutual love for nurse Kate Beckinsale) in the midst of a famed, full-blown historical disaster, "Pearl Harbor" is obviously meant to be the "Titanic" of World War II movies -- teary, thrilling and awesomely spectacular -- just as the raid sequence is probably meant to one-up Spielberg's shattering D-Day scene in "Saving Private Ryan." But it doesn't match its predecessor in either case. It's exactly the kind of picture detractors of "Titanic" and "Ryan" claimed they were: shallow, mercenary Hollywood shtick, reeking with good intentions and bad lines.
Maybe its intentions aren't so good. Director Bay can make almost anything leap off the screen, but screenwriter Randall Wallace ("Braveheart") seems incapable here of dreaming up any fictional character who hasn't already inhabited 20 other movies.
Wallace focuses mostly on his dreamy star trio. First we see cocky ace Rafe McCawley (Affleck) and pal Danny Walker (Hartnett) bonding in boyhood amid cornfields and crop-dusters, then shining in Doolittle's flight school; Rafe and brisk nurse Evelyn Johnson (Beckinsale) fall for each other when she needles him during his physical, then he hustles off to the Battle of Britain. When Rafe is mistakenly reported as killed in action, that leaves Evelyn to be consoled by Danny. Then Rafe unexpectedly returns, and all three are hurled into romantic turmoil -- alleviated when the Pearl Harbor attack begins and the two guys once again become brothers in battle. Meanwhile, Evelyn and her fellow nurses become angels who try to cope with the dying.
To Bruckheimer's credit, he always uses good, unusual actors. Both Affleck and Beckinsale (of "Cold Comfort Farm" and the recent Merchant-Ivory "The Golden Bowl") are smart, offbeat choices: actors who deliver more brainy intensity and style than a script like this deserves. But Hartnett ("The Virgin Suicides") fits the skin-deep material too well: a big, affable, stiff glamour-boy who looks a bit like Jan-Michael Vincent (the standard surfer blond '70s movie hunk) but doesn't yet act as well. When Affleck's Rafe was reported dead, I cringed at the prospect of two hours with Danny as sole hero and would have accepted any plot device -- including a mad scientist -- to get Rafe back.
Sometimes, in "Pearl Harbor," a mad scientist seems vaguely possible. At one war meeting, when Jon Voight's FDR rises up from his wheelchair, you may be reminded of Peter Sellers' Dr. Strangelove screaming, "I can walk!" And when I started to scribble down overused cliche lines halfway though, I had to give up: I was copying down most of the script.
This is a movie where characters actually say things like "If I had one more night to live, I'd want to spend it with you." Or "We may lose this battle, but we're going to win this war." Or " I want you to do me a favor: I want you to pray for both of us." Or "You're not going to die! Look at me! Listen to me! You can't die!" And when they are dying, they actually moan: "I'm so cold. I'm so cold."
In the midst of this cliche-storm, the movie uses history as a gaudy backdrop and the real-life characters as star turns or cameos. They all seem drafted to confer spurious legitimacy, as much as the overlush period detail of frenzied jitterbugs and jazz bands, or the black-and-white news clips that pop up, with maddening briefness, like snippets from CNN Headline News. At the end -- when the script drags Rafe and Danny off on Doolittle's "30 Seconds over Tokyo" raid, so the movie won't end on a U.S. defeat -- the entire plot turns cliche.
What a colossal waste of great historical material! The attack on Pearl Harbor was one of the watershed moments in American history, a cataclysm that blew away the country's innocence and triggered the bloodiest world conflict ever. It's a tale filled with grand strategies and amazing blunders, incredible twists of fate and great characters. Most of it is far more interesting than the lovelorn trio here -- performing their perfume ad trysts in billowing parachutes and later crying "Last night was crazy!" and "My heart is pounding!" Richard Fleischer's 1970 "Tora! Tora! Tora!" was sometimes dull, and it failed to grab audiences. But surely it was a more honorable model than the dozens of soap operas and action B-movies writer Wallace pillages here.
Still, you can't deny "Pearl Harbor" its peculiar power or stretches of slam-bang excitement. And its audience (likely to be huge) may not even mind the constant barrage of stereotypes and overfamiliar dialogue. One reason critics underrate Bay as a director -- despite the huge popularity of "Bad Boys," "The Rock" and "Armageddon," is that he's able to make bad, stale material work on screen, excusing himself with the disclaimer: "They're only popcorn movies."
Maybe. But should Pearl Harbor have been turned into popcorn? When a moviemaker strives at least partly for epic grandeur and historical sweep, he'd better have a vision to match his budget -- or he'll wind up, like Bay and Bruckheimer, with one terrific battle scene and a thousand cliches.
Rating: 2 1/2 stars
Directed by Michael Bay; written by Randall Wallace; photographed by John Schwartzman; edited by Chris Lebenzon, Steve Rosenblum, Mark Goldblatt, Roger Barton; production designed by Nigel Phelps; music by Hans Zimmer; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Bay. A Touchstone Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 3:03. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sustained intense war sequences, images of wounded, brief sensuality and some language).
Rafe McCawley ................. Ben Affleck
Danny Walker .................. Josh Hartnett
Evelyn Johnson ................ Kate Beckinsale
Doris "Dorie" Miller .......... Cuba Gooding Jr.
Col. Jimmy Doolittle .......... Alec Baldwin
Betty ......................... James King
President Roosevelt ........... Jon Voight Adm. Yamamoto ................. Mako
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.
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