Pearl Harbor
directed by Michael Bay
(Touchstone, 2001)

Did you watch Titanic for the soppy love story or to see a the famous luxury liner crash and sink in the icy Atlantic? There are fans of the movie firmly entrenched in both camps, and I suspect the same is true for fans of Pearl Harbor.

As a love story, Pearl Harbor is a good war flick. The setup is good -- after all, we want a sense that the people are real, not just cardboard cutouts to be shot at later -- but the melodramatic triangle that develops between two childhood friends (Ben Affleck and Josh Harnett as fighter pilots Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker) and the beautiful nurse (Kate Beckinsale as Evelyn Johnson) is overwrought and predictable.

The movie shines, though, in its depiction of Pearl Harbor, 1941, and the military's casual lack of concern over the potential threat from the Japanese. Although punctuated by scenes in Washington, D.C., where government and military officials sift through rumors and guesswork, the posture in Hawaii is focused on fun, frivolity and romance in the Pacific sun. Brief peeks into the preparations of the attack force in Japan and its clandestine progress across the ocean gives appropriate and ominous foreshadowings to the audience, but in Pearl Harbor, everyone remains blissfully unaware.

The attack on Pearl Harbor is pulse-pounding, eye-popping stuff. Filmmakers deserve high praise for the authentic look of the assault -- it's not graphic, gory stuff, but realistic in the death and destruction all the same. The body count is all too high, and there are moments when you'll swear you can feel the bullets pounding into the earth around you, the water closing over you.

The emotional impact is strong, as Army and Navy personnel struggle to mount some kind of defense and counterattack. Impressive, too, are the scenes of doctors and nurses scrambling to care for the flood of casualties. And through it all, the glorious ships, pride of the great Pacific fleet, groan and roll like living beings as their crews fight for survival in the roiling sea.

A bonus is Cuba Gooding Jr. as Dorie Miller, a navy cook limited by race from a combat post. The heroism of this real-life figure earned him a commendation for bravery. Also visually exciting are some fast-paced dogfights over England, where Affleck, earlier in the film, passed time flying with the Royal Air Force.

Unfortunately, the movie drags on too long. Apparently unwilling to end with America on the ropes, filmmakers kept the story going to include a vastly exaggerated version of the Doolittle raid over Tokyo, with our fighter pilots now flying bombers. The aftermath, following their crash-landing in China, passes the point of credulity.

Of course, there is also plenty of post-Pearl Harbor pathos as the lovers' triangle continues, but does anyone really care about that after so much catastrophe?

Squeeze the three hours of Pearl Harbor into a two-hour movie -- without sacrificing a single second of the attack footage -- and you'd have a winner. As it is, I can still recommend this movie highly.

DVD bonus: Among the various extras on the two-disc set is a History Channel documentary, Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor. This 45-minute feature is gripping, filled with footage and photos from the day and packed with historical data. A real plus!

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 21 September 2002

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