Pearl Harbor

Movie Information

Genre: Historical Drama
Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, Josh Hartnett, Jon Voight
Rated: PG-13

In Pearl Harbor a lot of things blow up real neat, but is it history? Considering that one review I’ve read makes the astonishing claim that Pearl Harbor took place on December 7, 1942, maybe that doesn’t matter. And it really doesn’t matter what I say about this movie. This isn’t a movie, it’s a pre-packaged event, and no amount of criticism about its value as a history lesson or anything else is going to prevent it from steamrolling its way to a fortune. Still, it’s something of a duty to comment on the witless mess that is Pearl Harbor. While the film manages to drag the actual attack out to 45 minutes of its ponderous 183 minute running time, that still leaves a lot of movie to be taken up by what passes for plot — a convoluted romance of the heavily cliched kind. In essence: Wanna-be fly boy Ben Affleck meets army Nurse Kate Beckinsale in a cute manner (mostly involving gags about men being given injections in the backside — this, along with a comic character who stutters, is the movie’s idea of humor) and they fall in love in an equally cute manner. Ah, but Ben wants to be a fighter pilot and since the U.S. isn’t in the war yet, he hops over to Britain and the Royal Air Force, whereupon he distinguishes himself before doing the “Captain Walker didn’t come home” shtick and crashing into the Atlantic. Kate, who, unlike the audience, doesn’t realize that the star of the film isn’t actually dead less than an hour into the proceedings, falls in love with Ben’s best buddy, Josh Hartnett. Of course, Ben — his matinee-idol looks undamaged (war may be hell, but we’re not mussing up the pretty people) — returns and is outraged by the “betrayal” of his girl and his friend. Before this can be sorted out, it’s time for the attack on Pearl Harbor. I must admit that the effects are quite stunning, even if the arcade-game approach to it threatens to trivialize the whole thing. Unfortunately, effects are all even this sequence can boast. There is absolutely no dramatic cohesion to the attack sequence; it could be cut up, reassembled any number of ways, and the effect would be identical. Worse, we are nowhere near the end of the film when the attack happens. Like the Energizer Bunny from Hell, this thing just keeps going and going and going … We can’t leave America in this state of disgrace, so the film morphs into Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Doolittle’s (Alec Baldwin suffering from John Wayne syndrome) bombing of Japan. Comparatively, it’s a simple sequence and reasonably brief, even if the aftermath of the bombing — where the film manages to kill off one of the romantic rivals — is shot in the Burning of Atlanta splendor of Gone with the Wind (one fully expects Affleck to kiss Hartnett by firelight on a bridge). If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s pretty much the plot of the old Errol Flynn film, Charge of the Light Brigade — with bits of nearly every war movie ever made mixed in. To make things worse, Pearl Harbor is so very careful to offend no one (except the intelligence of the viewer) that it makes Yamamoto (Mako), the most sympathetic mastermind of such an attack imaginable. We never see the man when he isn’t regretting that he has to do the dirty deed (and the first scene makes it clear that he has to do it). Not wishing to demonize the Japanese is commendable, but this is just as much an unbelievable caricature of a man as the worst WWII propaganda picture. The best thing about the movie — beyond the really neat explosions — is Jon Voight’s portrayal of FDR. For an actor I last saw sporting a bad Maurice Chevalier accent and being yakked up by a giant snake (Anaconda), this is a great recovery. He also has the best line in the film: “I like sub commanders, they don’t have time for bull**** and neither do I.” Unfortunately, director Michael Bay and writer Randall Wallace seem to have nothing but.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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