reviewed by Steve Sailer
UPI, May 24, 2001
Bravely, in a media-environment obsessed with the Holocaust and afraid of offending any nationality besides the Germans, "Pearl Harbor" - despite taking countless liberties with the historical record - viscerally conveys what World War II was actually all about to most Americans: revenge on Japan.
It is constantly implied in these days of "Greatest Generation"-worship that we fought to stop the Holocaust. The truth, though, was that if Hitler's blood-lust hadn't led him to stupidly declare war on us four days after the Japanese Navy's sneak attack, American public opinion might well have favored sitting out the European war to better concentrate on avenging Pearl Harbor. This movie shows why.
First, though, a lame opening act establishes a romantic triangle in pre-war Pearl Harbor involving a Navy nurse (Kate Beckinsale) and two pilots who were boyhood best friends back in Tennessee (Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett). It's "From Here to Eternity" redone for "Dawson's Creek" fans. It inspired me to treasonously hope that the Japanese Navy would steam faster.
Finally, the enemy arrives. You've no doubt seen some of the astonishing footage of the assault in ads and trailers, so I don't need to wear out my thesaurus coming up with adjectives to describe it.
Yet, no matter how spectacular the stunts and computer trickery, watching your country get kicked around is depressing and annoying, so "Pearl Harbor" wisely tacks on a rousing third act that's the most satisfying part of the movie. Four months later, our flyboy heroes fly with legendary airman Jimmy Doolittle on his heroic "Thirty Seconds over Tokyo" raid of retribution.
That's the good news about "Pearl Harbor." The ample bad news arises from the trade-offs in casting and script made necessary by spending so much on explosions.
Even with a budget of $135-$140 million, the producers could only afford to hire one glamour star, Affleck. Beckinsale, the obscure, sparrow-like British actress who supposedly drives the two pilots mad with love, won't remind anybody of Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca."
While Affleck resembles a bronzed movie god, his pal and rival, played by the young and little-known Hartnett, is forced to comb his hair down to his eyebrows so that he looks like an inbred hillbilly with a low forehead. Normally, audiences favor this kind of blatant casting and makeup because it efficiently telegraphs who is the hero who will get the girl and who is the sidekick who will get the bullet. As mogul Jack Warner exclaimed with perfect Hollywood intuition when informed that his former employee Ronald Reagan was going to run for President, "No, Jimmy Stewart for President, Ronald Reagan for best friend."
Still, in a movie where even the most history-averse audience member has some inkling of how the battle scenes are going to turn out, the predictability of the romantic subplot hurts more than usual. It feels a little churlish to tell Disney that they should have spent even more money on "Pearl Harbor." Yet, to have created some romantic tension, they needed to have hired a star of equal firepower to play Affleck's friend. Why not his real-life boyhood buddy, Matt Damon?
Finally, there's the question of why Disney gave the role of the great patriot Jimmy Doolittle to Alec Baldwin. Perhaps Jane Fonda wasn't available?
The other major problem is that when you spend a gazillion dollars, you almost have to try to appeal to all ages, sexes, and intelligence levels, and that's not easy.
If you want your historical epic to appeal to critics - who are overwhelmingly men - the simplest method, used by "Saving Private Ryan," is to just leave out almost all female characters. The purest example of this strategy was the critically-revered "Lawrence of Arabia," where no woman has a speaking role, although a few veiled females are allowed to silently serve dinner and ululate plaintively when their men-folk ride off to war.
In contrast, the popular hits "Gone with the Wind" and "Casablanca" were relationship movies with war as a backdrop. "From Here to Eternity" was a superbly cast human-scale drama with a few Zeroes buzzing the set for the "day that will live in infamy" finale.
Occasionally, though, a blockbuster movie comes along that one sex flips over while the other sex is at least satisfied. Writer-director James Cameron was able to turn "Titanic" into the biggest-grossing film ever because of his bizarrely split personality. On the set, he's an admiral, a natural commander of men and mighty machines. But in his study, Cameron can write the kind of sappily romantic script that speaks to the shallow depths of the average teenage girl's soul.
"Pearl Harbor" seems to want to be a date movie that guys will later see again on their own to relive all the bang-bang-boom-boom. But will enough youths be able to stomach the hokey love story?
For example, at the beginning of the third act comes a soap opera scene aimed at the crucial teenage girl market. Beckinsale is explaining to a heartbroken Affleck why she must marry Hartnett instead of him. She had been about to tell him earlier, she apologizes, but first her new boyfriend showed up and "then all this happened." Slowly at first, the audience broke into an eventual roar of laughter as it grasped the discordance of the inane gossipy line - "then all this happened" - being used to describe the biggest, loudest battle scene ever.
And will enough schoolgirls identify with Beckinsale's rather dull heroine to persuade them to put up with all the mayhem and bloodlust later in the film? Beats me. And I doubt if the Guy Movie experts behind "Pearl Harbor" - director Michael Bay ("The Rock") and writer Randall Wallace ("Braveheart") - know enough about young girls to tell either.
"Pearl Harbor" is rated PG-13: no nudity, some bad language, a fair amount of gore, and infinite violence.