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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 Edward Johnson-Ott
No Rating Supplied

As part of the pre-release hype for "Pearl Harbor," World War II vets attended screenings of the film and then voiced their reactions to the press. To no surprise, they were enthralled by the production. One soldier expressed his decades-old fear that the memory of Pearl Harbor would fade from the public consciousness. He was no longer concerned, though, for this epic film was a guarantee that he and his comrades would never be forgotten. Watching the parade of aged veterans before the cameras was stirring - stirring enough to make it seem vaguely unpatriotic to criticize such a noble endeavor.

Thankfully, I recovered.

If "Pearl Harbor" bolsters the legacy of those men and women, that's wonderful, but it should not obscure the fact that the three-hour saga isn't a very good movie. Intended to tap into the lucrative "Titanic" audience, "Pearl Harbor" is two-thirds cheesy love story and one-third fireworks extravaganza. Imagine a vintage Grade B WW II romance with state of the art special effects, edited by someone with attention deficient disorder, and you'll have an idea of what to expect.

The tale follows Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) as the best-friends-since-childhood become pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Rafe falls in love with Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a dedicated nurse, shortly before volunteering to travel to England and fight in the Battle of Britain. Shot down by enemy aircraft, he is mistakenly reported as dead. After a mourning period, Danny and Evelyn become a couple.

Of course, Rafe reappears in their life, leading to exactly what you would expect. The high drama between the three is interrupted when the Japanese launch their staggering assault on Pearl Harbor. Later, both men must leave Evelyn, this time to take part in a daring retaliatory raid. Let into command headquarters by a sympathetic officer, the terrified nurse listens to air reports of the attack that might rob her of the two most important men in her life.

Comparisons between "Pearl Harbor" and "Titanic" don't hold up. The love story in "Titanic" worked because the young man and woman served as representatives for all the souls onboard the disaster-bound ship. They were the embodiment of the hopes and dreams that were cut short when the massive boat went under. The romantic triangle between Rafe, Danny and Evelyn lacks that resonance. These characters are cut from the pages of a cheap paperback. When Evelyn describes the first time she met Rafe, her girlfriends listen raptly, giggling too hard at just the right moments because they are supporting players and that is their job. When Rafe and Danny race to try and stem the initial Japanese assault, each man's survival is assured because an old-time hero cannot die unless he is making a noble sacrifice in the final reel.

The battle scenes are just what you would expect from Michael Bay, the director of "Armageddon". The film jumps like lightning from one action image to the next, with jiggling cameras attempting to create a sense of verisimilitude as planes whoosh by in breathtaking fashion and weapons-fire explodes all around. Every few seconds, the screen fills with carefully composed panoramas of the devastation being wrought from above. The big money shot follows a Japanese bomb as it drops from the plane and plummets into a United States ship, resulting in a massive explosion.

It's an extremely cool visual, which is precisely the problem. In a film that is supposed to be honoring the men and women of Pearl Harbor, should we be oohing and aahing as we watch them die? The battle scenes in "Saving Private Ryan" put us right in the middle of the nightmare of combat. "Pearl Harbor" is a throwback to the war-as-spectacle school of filmmaking and, at least for me, that is no longer viable.

Incidentally, Bay's tendency to whoosh is not confined to the battles. Even during the gentle moments, his cameras repeatedly glide alongside, below and above the actors. The crane operators for this movie must have made a fortune. Bay doesn't know when to lighten up, and neither does the bullying orchestral score, which attempts to force emotions up the audience ear. On the positive side, while the idyllic vistas in the early scenes are too perfect to be believed, they are nonetheless quite lovely, using the color palate well.

Within this cavalcade of overkill are a group of talented actors. When a British officer asks Rafe if all Yanks are "so anxious to die," the airman replies, "Not anxious to die, sir, anxious to matter." That Ben Affleck is able to keep a straight face while delivering that hack line is a tribute to his skill. As Danny, Josh Hartnett hits the right notes and Kate Beckinsale is quite striking as Evelyn. Other cast members play characters based on real people. In a crucial supporting role, Jon Voight is flat-out amazing as FDR, totally disappearing into the persona of the commander-in-chief. Alec Baldwin breathes life to aviation legend Jimmy Doolittle, despite being saddled with a nonstop barrage of lines straight from Cliché Central. Allotted criminally short screen time is Cuba Gooding Jr., who gives a restrained performance as Doris "Dorie" Miller, the first black soldier to be honored in WW II.

Even though it rips off a slew of other movies and tries to turn war into a thrill ride, "Pearl Harbor" deserves credit for honoring the work of nurses and, albeit briefly, servicemen of color, in addition to white male veterans. It also deserves credit for treating the Japanese fairly and for showing, if only for a split second, the bigotry aimed at Asian-Americans. "Pearl Harbor" is not an awful movie. It is simply another example of what happens when a film is made by technicians instead of artists.

Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott

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