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Pearl Harbor

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Pearl Harbor

Starring: Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale
Director: Michael Bay
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 183 Minutes
Release Date: May 2001
Genres: Action, Drama, War, Romance

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Of the many wars and military interventions to which the United States has been a party, only one was not declared or pursued by America before this country was attacked by a hostile power. World War II was the lone conflict forcing America's hand: abruptly, dramatically, devastatingly. What is the relevance of this historic detail? Simply that because the territorial lands and waters of the United States were hit while the U.S. was at peace, few Americans of fighting age rushed to graduate school or to parenthood to escape the draft and, in fact, the morning after the Pearl Harbor attack found thousands of young people lined up outside their military recruitment centers itching to sign up and fight to restore their country's honor. Here was a clear-cut moral war against the forces of fascism, a struggle to inspire a rebirth of nationalism after a long passive stance of listless isolationism. Here was a conflict made for the movies, and thanks to the advanced special effects people from Industrial Light and Magic who furnish some awfully dramatic explosions together with patriotic action sequences and a screenplay that does not treat the Japanese as boorish caricatures, "Pearl Harbor" is not a picture you'd want to skip. Nonetheless the film is seriously flawed.

Through this $135 million presentation, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay attempt to equal or outdo major war pictures like "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "The Longest Day," and "Saving Private Ryan" as a proud and entertaining testament to the men and women who kept our nation and its allies free from the totalitarian grip of a relentless adversary.

I suppose some hearts will beat rapidly at both the soapy romance that emerges at strategic times during the action and even leap up while watching the feel-good ending that features the courageous Jimmy Doolittle's daring, almost suicidal bombing attack directly on Tokyo just months after the Pearl Harbor debacle. Despite Bob Badami's attempt to browbeat us with banal music which in a few instances all but drowns out the soapy dialogue, one could not be blamed for feeling proud to be an American--cheering on the Doolittle raid while suffering trepidation at the appalling damage done by wave after wave of Japanese "zeros" during an attack of an hour or so that left over 3,000 people dead on the island of Oahu. At two hours and fifty minutes not including the thirteen minutes of credits that thankfully appear only at the end, however, the overlong film should depress anyone who has seen Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" as unfortunately second-rate in its battle sequences. The millions who will compare the amorous activities on the screen with those present in James Cameron's "Titanic" might not be blamed for thinking that something this time around has been plagiarized from a Harlequin romance.

Since Bay and Bruckheimer may realize that they've already got the lovers of guns and glory sold well in advance of the opening day, they've opted to spend the greater part of the film's time on the eternal, romantic triangle: the courtship of Nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) by airmen Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett). The film's opening in 1923 positions Rafe and Danny as best buddies in rural Tennessee. In one scene that points out their desire to fly, they play around in a crop-dusting plane, surprised by the aircraft's sudden liftoff, which lasts about as long as the Wright Brothers' first flight but probably scares them quite a bit more. They join the United States Army Air Corps at which time Rafe, volunteering for an extra immunization shot in the butt from the strikingly pretty, girl-next-door Nurse Evelyn, falls in love, yet volunteers to join a British company some months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He goes down with his plane and is presumed dead. Evelyn teams up with Danny--signalling the audience that trouble is about to brew between the best buddies that will tear them up even more than the war experiences to follow.

Director Michael Bay ("The Rock," "Armageddon") teams up for the fourth Bruckheimer production determined to give the huge expected audience what he's sure it wants the most: sappy and sentimental love juxtaposed with the best that state-of-the-art special effects can supply. While the protracted attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor might invite comparisons to the opening half hour of "Saving Private Ryan," the latter had one large advantage. Since the landing in France in 1944 was a surprise move engineered by the U.S., viewers could focus on Tom Hanks's character throughout the harrowing battle scene as he directs his squad of seven men in the invasion. By keeping his camera close to the ground pointing up at the men, photographer Janusz Kaminski gave us an unsurpassed view of what it must be like to be in the hell of a firestorm. By contrast, since the 1941 attack in "Pearl Harbor" was engineered by the Japanese-- who are shown in the planning as rational commanders who even cancel the plan for a third wave because the surprise would be lost--John Schwartzman's lensing shows mostly a prolonged period of confusion, unable to focus on one man in the manner that Tom Hanks was used in "Ryan."

Some of the visuals are quite good, of course, as you'd expect from a film costing as much as this one (but still 65 million less than "Titanic"), my favorite being a closeup of a torpedo dropped from a Japanese fighter plane that brought me back to the final scene in Stanley Kubrick's far more imaginative "Dr. Strangelove," in which a crazed right-wing American fighter rides an atomic bomb from his plane right down to its target.

Between the furious action and the romance, there is some strong, even humorous accompanying action with strong imagery. In one, Dorie Miller (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) pummels a fighter in the boxing ring while implicitly pointing out the discrimination that blacks faced during that war. Wanting nothing more than to man a gun, he is relegated to the kitchen as one of his ship's cooks. As Col. James H. Doolittle, Alec Baldwin serves to inspire his men to go on a suicide mission designed to raise the morale of the America people after the disaster of Pearl Harbor. On the Japanese side, Mako turns in a strong performance as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who directs the attack on Pearl Harbor together with Commander Minoru Genda (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), planning the campaign for several weeks in advance while incredibly managing to keep the Americans clueless about his mission and flaying about in an attempt to guess where the Japanese would inevitably strike.

Jon Voight inhabits the role of the wheelchair-bound President F.D. Roosevelt splendidly, showing genuine emotion at the losses suffered at Pearl Harbor, and recreating the opening to his dramatic address to the U.S. Congress one day after the Pearl Harbor attack. Josh Hartnett and Ben Affleck are fine as best buddies who have a serious falling out over a woman, with the lovely British actress Kate Beckinsale, hair makeup always in place even while racing about the hospital in search of morphine or getting it on inside a parachute with Josh Hartnett, is a perfect icon for the excellent work done by women who administer to the wounded and even fall themselves in the heat of battle.

Fine performances aside--bogged down by Randall Wallace's mushy and hackneyed dialogue, drowned out by Bob Badami's bullying beat, and intimidated by Mr. Kaminski's ever-soaring and descending camera, "Pearl Harbor" ends a victim of the sort of over-production that motivates producers and directors who believe that a mass audience must be afflicted with attention-deficit disorder.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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