In the ’90s, “Titanic” came and broke every record in sight. It was a mammoth success and is still the number one box office champ 4 years after its release. James Cameron, the film’s writer/director, hasn’t done a movie since, which is of his own choice, because after the success of “Titanic,” Cameron could have gotten a $200 million dollar movie made about a pen sharpener and no one would raise a hand in protest. That brings us to what I have termed the Trivial Love Triangle During a Major Historical Event movies. “Titanic” was most responsible for the popularity of said genre, and every epic or would-be epic has followed its formula ever since — or so it seems. Two of the more notables films in the genre are “Enemy at the Gate” and this film, “Pearl Harbor.”
Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, “Pearl Harbor” followed “Titanic’s” formula right down to the casting of a young English woman to play an American who falls in love with the plain “farm boy” American who charms her with “good ol American charm.” (I put that last phrase in quotes simply because the “charm” in question was in the screenplay but not present onscreen in both movies.) “Pearl Harbor” had Kate Beckinsale in the Kate Winslet role (same first names!) and Ben Affleck in the Leo DiCaprio role. Josh Hartnett takes up the Billy Zane role, although Hartnett is neither evil nor a bastard, despite sleeping with Beckinsale when Affleck’s character is believed to have been killed in action. He’s a “good” bastard, I suppose, is the right word. (This, incidentally, has him more in common with the “other guy” character in “Enemy at the Gates.”)
“Pearl Harbor,” as the name implies, is about the surprised Japanese bombing of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base during World War II. But the movie is more than that. The attack on the Harbor itself takes up only 40 minutes of the film’s nearly 3-hour running time. The first hour is devoted to the sappy (and unconvincing) romance between Affleck and Beckinsale, then later between Beckinsale and Harnett (which proves just as unconvincing). The attack on Pearl Harbor takes up the second hour, and the third hour involves the American retaliation, involving Doolittle’s famous raid over Tokyo.
The film is really one big music video by director Michael Bay (“Armageddon”), who has always been accused of (and quite rightly so) of being more style than substance. The dialogue in “Pearl Harbor” is corny as hell, and it’s a surprise Randall Wallace (“Braveheart”) had anything to do with this film. But I suppose it makes sense to see Wallace’s name in the credits. Wallace has made a career out of writing historical epics, first with “Braveheart” and then directing his own Vietnam epic, “We Were Soldiers.”
Heavily aided by special effects, the attack on Pearl Harbor is easily the film’s highlight — and my oh my what highlight it is! When hundreds of Japanese Zeros (attack planes) fill the sky while kids are playing baseball in a field, it’s a sight to behold. In that sense, Bay knows his stuff. But when it comes to the romance angle, there’s just nothing there to really get excited about. Kate Beckinsale is appropriately stunning as the love interest, and it’s easy to see why both Hartnett and Affleck’s characters are falling all over themselves to get her in the sack. Unfortunately stiff dialogue and a general lack of chemistry between Beckinsale and her male co-stars doom any sense of believability.
Nevertheless, there’s still the action to hold onto. No one can claim Michael Bay can’t film action. Every frame of “Pearl Harbor” is beautiful, and the man seamlessly integrates CGI bombs and Japanese planes with the actual surroundings. Although I have to admit that it’s a little disconcerting that the best part of the movie is the spectacular destruction of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. I know the film itself is based around that subject matter, but I’m not quite sure how I, as an American, am supposed to feel about such gleeful re-creation of one of the darkest days in American history.
“Pearl Harbor” really doesn’t deserve all the bad press it has received. It’s an American film, about an American subject matter, and all critics of its “pro” American stance is, to put it frankly, blowing in the wind. Accusations of “jingoism” is unwarranted, unfair, and narrow-minded. “Pearl Harbor” may not be a fine example of moviemaking, but it’s certainly a spectacular example of action moviemaking.
Michael Bay (director) / Randall Wallace (screenplay)
CAST: Ben Affleck … Capt. Rafe McCawley
Josh Hartnett … Capt. Danny Walker
Kate Beckinsale … Nurse Lt. Evelyn Johnson
Cuba Gooding Jr. … Petty Officer Doris Miller
Jon Voight … President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Alec Baldwin … Lt. Col. James Doolittle
Tom Sizemore … Sgt. Earl Sistern