The bombs explode brilliantly but the story is a bust in “Pearl Harbor.” Except for the central 40-minute attack sequence, which combines razzle-dazzle pyrotechnics with high grade visual effects to deliver the destructive spectacle people want to see, this $140 million Jerry Bruckheimer-Michael Bay World War II extravaganza features a script that Jack Warner would have found wanting even for a propaganda meller at the time, along with a cast perfectly in tune with its shallowness. Resulting three-hour opus, which plays out from here to what seems like eternity, isn’t bad enough to keep the public from flocking to it in the kind of numbers that will support its seemingly pre-ordained status as the No. 1 film of the summer. But for all the coin the picture will generate, the tepid love triangle hardly seems like one that audiences will genuinely and warmly embrace.
Although not willfully inaccurate in its account of Japan’s surprise attack on the Hawaiian home base of the United States’ Pacific Fleet on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the event that triggered Uncle Sam’s entry into the war more than two years after it began, Randall Wallace’s screenplay takes a Classics Illustrated fifth grade approach to one of 20th century history’s most literally explosive moments.
Preferring to recycle standard-issue inspirational cliches from the period rather than to delve into the many fascinating elements that led to the clash, pic represents the anti-historical approach Hollywood seems to think the modern public prefers.
With “Titanic” clearly serving as its artistic and financial model, “Pearl Harbor” seeks to honor all those who selflessly dedicated and, in many cases, sacrificed themselves for their country. But the characters, even given the ample opportunity of such protracted running time, don’t exhibit any traits other than noble patriotism and romantic distress.
What the viewer is left with, then, are visions of staggering action, conflict and tragedy played out on the grandest of possible canvases, but with no one you know or care about to emotionally pull you into the events.
Watching the 350 Japanese fighters and bombers blast away at American ships and personnel in something close to real time is arresting and vivid, but it’s not wrenching or breathtaking or heart-stopping; you think more about what it took to put it onscreen rather than being swept up in it.
What prevents the attack from packing its full punch are the 80 minutes of dreariness that precede it. All we’ll ever know about Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker is what we learn in the prologue — that they’ve been best friends since their cornpone youths in Tennessee and have never wanted to do anything but fly. They get their chance in 1941, when they undergo some very “Top Gun”-ish flight training on Long Island, which is here miraculously graced by some imposing mountain backdrops.
But their paths diverge when the impatient Rafe (Ben Affleck) volunteers for the English Eagle Squadron, while Danny (Josh Hartnett) remains Stateside. Before leaving, the somewhat goofy, self-deprecating Rafe has an intense few weeks in New York with Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a comely nurse who charms him by giving him a few sharp pokes in the backside and overlooking the fact that he can’t make sense of the eye chart. Evelyn, Rafe decides, is the girl for him.
Meanwhile, Danny and Evelyn have ended up in balmy Oahu, where military service repped a sort of precursor to Club Med even as the perceived Japanese threat was building. Pic acknowledges for about five seconds that there was Japanese espionage going on in the area, and for about 10 seconds that American authorities were divided over what Japan might do and how best to prepare for it, but entirely ignores the fascinating social/racial/political dynamic on the islands at the time.
Nor does it take advantage of this lull before the storm to develop the characters in any interesting ways.
Evelyn and her fellow nurse girlfriends remain narrowly man-minded, and not a shred of personal background info is given to the female lead herself. The guys Danny pals around with are equally one-dimensional, and another man, Doris “Dorrie” Miller, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., gets maybe 10 minutes of screen time to illustrate how blacks were subordinated in the segregated Navy of the time to menial jobs.
Danny and an initially reluctant Evelyn are brought together in a union consummated in a swirl of photogenic white parachutes.
But faster than you can say “A Guy Named Joe,” who should turn up but Rafe, ready for action in more ways than one. After a barroom brawl, the guys have just acknowledged that they have no idea how they’ll ever be able to see eye-to-eye again when the Japanese provide them with an answer out of the blue.
Although never pretending to do justice to the Japanese side a la “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” neither does “Pearl Harbor” wish to offend one of the world’s biggest markets. So it makes do with brief, formal scenes of Nipponese officers, principally the attack’s formulator and chief proponent, Admiral Yamamoto (Mako), making subtitled pronouncements about the United States’ oil embargo having given them little choice but to go to war.
Overall treatment of the Japanese is reasonably respectful and non-inflammatory, given that they are still the bad guys herein; there are several references to the “Japs,” but never anything worse. Rather, the film reserves its most vigorous sanitization efforts to the almost total elimination of cigarettes from a military scene in which nearly everyone smoked. The same revisionism applied in “Saving Private Ryan,” and it’s ludicrous.
After the prolonged and frequently tedious build-up, Bay misses another bet by refusing to permit a few minutes of quiet before the early morning skies fill with roaring Zeros, Kates and Vals. Few settings offer a more alluring vision of earthly paradise than Hawaii, and it seems perverse not to allow the audience to take a few deep, if uneasy breaths before the main event.
But while it is not as compulsively frenetic as it was in “Armageddon,” Bay’s filmmaking style is still defined by relentless cutting and grandiose camera moves. And this seemingly ingrained inability to hold any shot more than a few seconds actually works against one of the prime goals of a war film — to present a coherent sense of logistics, the geographic relationship of one force versus another.
It also ill-serves the epic style; when dozens of Japanese planes zoom down a long valley from the north toward Pearl Harbor, one wants to behold the unique spectacle at length, to let its horrific majesty become imprinted on the brain.
The attack, then, is spectacular but not rousing. The physical verisimilitude is unimpeachable; a few explosions to the side, the sequence avoids the usual CGI look, and the combination of roaring planes, swirling smoke, splattering bullets, scurrying soldiers, fallen men, desperate nurses and sinking boats creates a strong image of desperate chaos and confusion, and fills the screen with visceral incident.
In the midst of all the destruction, the beginnings of American resistance are seen in the commandeering by Rafe and Danny of two fighter planes, which engage the Japanese in dog fights that see seven Zeros bite the dust and eventually inspire Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) to select the two buddies to join him four months later on his famous bombing raid on Tokyo.
Casting reminds of a Warner Bros. war drama for which they couldn’t get Humphrey Bogart or Errol Flynn so they went with George Raft or George Brent instead. Rafe is supposed to suffer from deep emotional hurt, but the blandly handsome Affleck couldn’t convince that he’d ever so much as been turned down for a date, much less lost the love of his life to his best friend. Hartnett comes off as a tag-along kid, while Beckinsale is all fancy coiffures and thick lipstick in a role that is startlingly undefined.
Just compare their superficiality to the complex characters in “From Here to Eternity” and what’s missing here becomes terribly clear.
Lenser John Schwartzman goes for the hard-edged, contrasty look of ’40s studio productions to sometimes interesting, sometimes obvious effect, although the film never takes on a thick atmosphere of its own. Score is unusually overbearing coming from Hans Zimmer, with echoes of “Gladiator” bouncing around throughout.