(2001) War Drama (Touchstone) Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Jon Voight, Jaime King, William Lee Scott, Greg Zola, Ewen Bremner, Catherine Kellner, Jennifer Garner, Cuba Gooding Jr., Michael Shannon, Tom Sizemore, Mako, John Fujioka, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Colm Feore, Dan Aykroyd, William Fichtner, Beth Grant. Directed by Michael Bay
Nicol Williamson as Merlin in the John Boorman film Excalibur once said “It is the doom (of men) that they forget.” It has only been in the last few years of the 20th century (thanks in no small part to the efforts of men like Messrs. Hanks, Spielberg and Brokaw) that Americans have begun to wake up to the sacrifices of the Americans who comprised what Brokaw eloquently called “The Greatest Generation.”
The attack at Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941, in many ways remains America’s defining moment. It is a moment of ashes and pain, of blood and despair, written in the bullets and bombs of the Japanese and signed by our own arrogance to think it couldn’t happen to us. From that moment of despair was wakened a world power, one which has dominated the politics of this planet for the half-century since.
Given the success of Saving Private Ryan, it was inevitable that someone would make an epic movie about the date that will live in infamy. Tora, Tora, Tora has been the watershed Pearl Harbor movie up till now, but was only a marginal success when it was released. America is ready for a blockbuster.
Enter Michael Bay, the director behind Armageddon. In some ways, he was the ideal choice to make a movie about the attack. He knows spectacle and can handle immense scale. I’ve always thought him a little rough around the edges when it came to handling characterization and dealing with emotions, but he can be counted on to show the scope of the devastation, to blow our minds with explosions, twisted metal and bodies shredded before our eyes.
Of course he can. However, Bay had his own agenda. Not only did he want to tell the story of the battle, but he wanted to simultaneously elevate himself to the status currently enjoyed by James Cameron. In other words, he wanted this to be his Titanic, and therefore he inserted a love triangle that frames the drama of the tragedy of the attack.
Rafe McCawley (Affleck) is a pilot “born to fly.” He is everything heroic and noble about the American prewar spirit, the quintessence of the “boy next door.” His best friend Danny Walker(Hartnett) is also a pilot, and has always been on the edges of Rafe’s shadow, a good man in his own right but a reflection of Rafe’s glory. Rafe meets and falls in love with Evelyn Stewart (Beckinsale), a beautiful nurse. McCawley is itching for action and requests a transfer to the Eagle Squadron, a squad of American pilots assisting in the Battle of Britain. Rafe and Evelyn continue their love affair by letter, but when Rafe is shot down over the English Channel and is presumed dead, Evelyn is inconsolable.
As time goes by, both Evelyn and Danny get over the grief and find solace in each other. They are transferred to the plum naval assignment – Pearl Harbor – and spend most of their days in bars, cafes and at the movies, or just mooning over each other. However, a monkey wrench is thrown into their idyllic situation; Rafe returns from Europe, having been hiding in occupied France for nearly a year. He arrives at Pearl to find his best friend and the love of his life together, and it tears him apart. Of course, Rafe arrives on December 6, 1941. The next morning, all heck breaks loose.
The battle scenes themselves are very well done. Wave after wave of Japanese planes attack the fleet in battleship row, and as bomb after bomb and torpedo after torpedo finds its mark, the proud U.S. Pacific Fleet begins to sink. Some of the sailors react with panic and horror, and freeze in the face of this unthinkable attack. Others, such as real-life hero Dorie Miller (Gooding) find their destiny of glory at hand.
For Stewart, she finds chaos and overwhelming horror as the wounded and the dead begin to find their way to the hospital. She and the nurses must make heroic measures to save some of the more gravely wounded, as overtaxed doctors become nearly superhuman in their efforts. The hospital sequences are among the best in the movie and received some of the least attention.
The movie should have ended there, but goes on for nearly an hour afterwards, ending up with the bombing raid on Tokyo led by the charismatic Jimmy Doolittle (Baldwin). If you’re planning to see this movie, prepare to knock about three hours out of your day and be sure you use the restroom before the movie starts or at least be prepared to use the pause button pretty regularly.
The critics have blasted this movie, and in all frankness, I get the feeling that many of them are reviewing the movie’s extreme budget (budgeted somewhere around $140 million, it is the highest film budget ever approved by a studio to that time) and that there is a great deal of anti-Bay sentiment. Michael Bay isn’t particularly my favorite director, but he does an excellent job on the battle sequence. The biggest problem with Pearl Harbor is that it’s probably about half an hour too long at the very least. The love triangle is a bit predictable, as are the fates of many of the supporting characters (see if you can pick out the doomed players from the crowd).
Pearl Harbor got compared with Titanic, perhaps unfairly, mainly because both movies take a well-known tragedy and frame it with a love triangle. However, whereas the love story enhances the tragedy in Cameron’s movie, it slows down Pearl Harbor. Also, Bay is not known for subtlety and occasionally goes too far; one rousing speech in which FDR (Voight) rises to his feet, polio-stricken as he was, staggers the imagination and immediately yanks your suspension of disbelief to overload.
Affleck, who took a few hits in the reviews for his performance, is actually quite good as McCawley. Affleck is given really a very minimally realized character whose basic purpose is to be heroic, and carries it off impressively well or at least as well as he could given the limitations of Rafe’s personality. Both Hartnett and Beckinsale were beginning their careers at this point; both have continued to improve upon their performances here, particularly Beckinsale who has gained fame for her work in the popular Underworld movies. As for the supporting cast, Baldwin and Sizemore (as the proverbial crusty Sergeant from the Bronx) are memorable, but Voight chews the scenery like the catering truck had gone on strike. Gooding is, as usual, excellent, but he has little more than a cameo.
There is a definitive movie on Pearl Harbor waiting to be made, and unfortunately, this one isn’t it. Still, for all the negativity, here are the positive things: It’s epic size and scope are truly awe-inspiring. It manages, at many points, to raise patriotic fervor to a fever pitch. Thirdly, it poignantly reminds those of us who are too young to remember just what a price was paid for victory, and how badly we were beaten at Pearl Harbor.
Finally, this was a movie that needed to be made when it did, while many of the veterans of that war are still alive. Those I saw of that generation in the movie theater where I first saw the film were visibly affected by the movie, and that has to go to the good on Bay’s ledger.
Da Queen, who in a bit of uncalculated irony dined on sushi before seeing this movie, was a tear-streaked pile of mush for much of the proceedings, and recommends that those sensitive souls who cry at movies bring plenty of tissues, or at least to make sure that their husbands are wearing moisture-absorbent shirts.
For my part, I’m going to say that this is a very flawed movie that nonetheless should be a must-see for all of us. I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, but until we finally head out that way, this is going to serve as the next-best experience. Perhaps some bright director someday will make a movie about the Arizona, which I would see in a heartbeat. Until then, Pearl Harbor, for all its faults, will have to do as the movie of record for one of America’s defining moments.
WHY RENT THIS: Dazzling battle scenes. Ben Affleck isn’t half-bad (damned by faint praise, I know). Exceedingly patriotic.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary love triangle detracts from the drama. A good 45-60 minutes too long. Stretches disbelief a bit too far.
FAMILY MATTERS: War violence, some disturbing images of the wounded, a fair bit of foul language and an even smaller bit of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rafe is based loosely on actual fighter pilot Joe Foss whom Bay interviewed prior to shooting the film. Rafe’s speech about the plane being an extension of his body was taken nearly verbatim from that interview.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The 60th Anniversary edition (of the attack not the film) as well as the Blu-Ray edition includes a History Channel documentary on the attack and a music video by Faith Hill. The four-disc Vista edition includes these, another History Channel documentary on the Doolittle raid, footage of a boot camp the actors all undertook, an interactive version of the attack sequence from several different angles and a choice of different audio tracks, a hidden gag reel as well as a collector’s booklet and poster art cards.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $449.2M on a $140M production budget; against all odds the movie was a hit.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Titanic
FINAL RATING: 5/10