Let this be said at the outset, Touchstone Pictures' "Pearl Harbor"
will not go down in cinematic history as the greatest film ever made.
There are points of corny dialogue, as an actual history it is a disaster,
and at some of its most crucial moments, the story suddenly goes oddly
flat. Yet, in spite of its obvious shortcomings, it works reasonably
well as an evocation of how the nation saw itself seeing itself, as
well as providing some undeniably spectacular special effects and
a love story that is better than the critics have made it out to be.
The story is fairly straightforward. Two boys who grew up together
as best friends fascinated by the daring-do of the World War I air
aces, join the Army Air Corps on the eve of World War II. The older
man, Rafe (Ben Affleck), is cocky, self-assured, and eager to be a
hero. The younger man, Danny (Josh Hartnett), is sensitive, somewhat
shy, and was presumably traumatized by his father's emotional breakdown
after fighting in the trenches of France during the Great War. When
Rafe joins the Eagle Squadron, a British unit for American volunteer
pilots, and is subsequently presumed killed in action, Danny first
comforts, and then falls in love with, Rafe's girlfriend, a Navy nurse
named Evelyn - played by the lovely Kate Beckinsale. On the eve of
the Pearl Harbor attack, Rafe returns - it transpires that he had
been rescued by a French fishing boat and was hiding out in occupied
France - causing a love triangle that is interrupted by the Japanese
attack. In the end, Rafe and Dann!
y reconcile just before both participate in the April, 1942 Dollittle
raid on Tokyo, with Evelyn waiting back at Pearl to find out if her
men will make it home from the mission.
The critics have said that the portrayal of the attack is the strongest
part of the film and that the love story is dispensable. Actually,
the reverse is true. For a student of history, the "historical" aspects
of the film are either inaccurate, incomplete, or simply false. The
battle scenes, though indisputably gripping, are almost too glitzy,
with Japanese and American warplanes performing tactics best suited
to Star Wars X-wing fighters, and at least one shot with 1990's vintage
aircraft carriers being included in a "fleet at sea" scene.
The love story, on the other hand, has all of the feel of a 1943 vintage
romance and war movie. Somewhat hokey and a little overwrought, but
nevertheless compelling. The viewer gets a feel not so much for the
times themselves, but for the cinema at a time when Americans went
to the movies both for entertainment and for reaffirmation. The movie
evokes the world as it was in 1941 as viewed through the prism of
moviegoers during the war and its immediate aftermath. It is a mixture
of innocence, foreboding, nostalgia and cliche.
To be certain, sometimes the story falls flat. Although Affleck, Beckinsale
and Harnett all put in good performances, they do not have enough
time - even in a three hour movie - to convey all the information
that the viewer needs to be fully engaged with the characters. Also,
the scene where Evelyn sees Rafe alive for the first time is oddly
muted. Evelyn is shocked at first, but moves straight to confusion
over her feelings for both Rafe and Danny. The expected intervening
step - joy at seeing Rafe alive - never transpires, making the whole
scene seem an anti-climax.
One other peculiar aspect of the movie is its rather grim tone - surprising
in a summer movie. Although Wallace and Bay work tirelessly to bring
out themes of pride and patriotism, they never fully succeed. Even
the end sequences, which are emotionally the most powerful - and arguably
the best dramatice scenes - in the movie, do not create feelings of
patriotism so much as a sense of wistfulness. The audience feels happy
for the characters, but it is mixed with a sense of loss. This will
probably be effective with older audiences, but may lack the emotional
lift that the under 30 crowd seems to require of its movies.
As to the performances, almost all the cast perform well, if not always
up to their finest earlier work. Affleck is convincing as the cocky
pilot, and his sequences with Beckinsale demonstrate the same kind
of restrained, and for that seemingly more authentic, emotion as he
showed as the cocky ad agent in "Bounce." (Though, overall, he is
better in "Bounce.") Beckinsale is gorgeous in 1940's vintage attire
and hairstyle and brings off even the most cliched lines - and she
gets her fair share - with a naturalness that makes them acceptable
to 21st century audiences. Hartnett has the toughest job as the introspective
Danny in a cast of very prominent characters, but pulls it off to remarkable effect.
As to Cuba Gooding Jr., Dan Akroyd, Jon Voight, Alec Baldwin and the
rest of the cast, all do creditable work. The one exception is the
Japanese actor, Mako, whose Admiral Yamamoto is played without the
subtlety that Soh Yamamura brought to the role in "Tora!, Tora!, Tora!."
An occasional physical gesture, such as shaking his head with regret
when he delivers the obligatory "sleeping giant" line might have been more effective.
Taken together, "Pearl Harbor" is not the strongest movie, but its
feelings are real and it definitely taps into the anxiety, harshness,beauty,
courage, and heroism that Americans equate with the movies of that
period. That probably accounts for "Pearl Harbor's" bad reviews. The
critics, and unfortunately probably most younger audiences, want an
action story or a love story, and cannot relate very much to, or empathize
with, evocations of a world long since past and that seems, in retrospect,
pitiably naive. That is sad, but less for the talented and underapprecited
cast and crew of "Pearl Harbor," than for the viewers who will see it.
Copyright © 2002 James E. Geoffrey II