The best that can be said about Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, his colossal take on one of the most tumultuous events of American history, is that it's decidedly not a popcorn summer movie in the current sense.
Quite the opposite: Deviating from the recent spate of postmodern, intentionally anachronistic historical sagas (think: Knight's Tale or Moulin Rouge), Pearl Harbor is as square as they come: A straight, earnest, and schmaltzy epic about the impact of WWII on a romantic triangle of two flyers in love with the same nurse, played by Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale.
The North American theatrical opening of this over-hyped, extremely well marketed movie yielded strong (about $75m over the four-day holiday weekend) but not utterly spectacular numbers, a combined result of the film's excessive running time (three hours and two minutes, which reduces the number of screenings per day), no name cast (Affleck being the biggest star), and an old-fashioned narrative that might be more pleasing to older, educated viewers than teenagers who dominate the summer season.
One of the most perplexing things is how easily the media bought into Disney's positioning of Pearl Harbor as “the summer's top gun,” claiming the undisputable status of the season's most important and commercial event. Various reports have even placed Pearl Harbor in the company of Titanic, the most popular movie ever made. While there's no doubt that James Cameron's Oscar-winner served as a model — Pearl Harbor is a tragic love story set against a major historical disaster — what Bay's picture lacks are emotionally engaging characters, a more complex and modernist view of a significant event, cutting-edge moviemaking that goes beyond special effects, not to speak of a charismatic star like Leonardo DiCaprio, who single-handedly accounted for repeated viewing by millions of girls all over the world.
Pearl Harbour is formally divided into three chapters. The first act, which is the longest and weakest, begins in 1923 Tennessee, with two farm boys, Rafe and Danny, whose sole dream is to fly. It's quickly established that they are not only best friends, but that Rafe is the stronger and model of conduct. The story then cuts to 1941, when the duo are in a Long island training camp, which gives producer Bruckheimer chance to display acrobatic flying that recalls his 1986 actioner, Top Gun, with Tom Cruise as “the best of the best” pilot.
The buddies separate when the volatile and impatient Rafe (Affleck) volunteers for the UK Eagle Squadron, while Danny (Hartnett) stays at home. Before he leaves, Rafe engages in a prolonged and tedious courtship of nurse Evelyn (Beckinsale), which begins when she ignores his vision problems and jokily pokes two injections in his butt. A man of honor, Rafe refuses to consummate their relationship, leaving a tearful Evelyn with the promise “I'll come back for you.” The shocking news that Rafe had died in action brings the devastated Danny and Evelyn together, only to find out that he's alive, resulting in a classic triangle.
The much talked about reconstruction of the Japanese attack on the US Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, takes 40 minutes of screen time and constitutes the most visually exciting segment. Here, Bay's staging is grandiose, showing the shocking raid from the multiple perspectives of soldiers caught offguard, nurses walking down the street, children playing ball, etc. There are astonishing point-of-view shots of torpedoes dropping into the water, then speeding toward their targets. The view of storming Japanese planes, swirling smoke, splattering bullets, and sinking boats creates an indelible image of chaos, confusion, anger, and humiliation.
Bay puts the audience at the centre, registering the terror of soldiers watching helplessly the horrifying effects of bodies flying in the air and explosions reducing battleships to pieces of metal with men entrapped inside. Nonetheless, Bay and his editors fall victim to a repetitive pattern of cutting, alternating the vastness of the set-pieces with routine civilian scenes in Tokyo and Washington.
Moreover, as impressive as the physical verisimilitude is, it only accentuates the contrast with the banalities of a script that lacks any fully developed characters. The shallow narrative gives the impression of being under pressure to acknowledge prevalent issues and types at the time. Hence, a talented actor like Cuba Gooding has three scenes that exist to show that blacks also participated in the war and that there was racial tension. The superficial characterization is made worse by the contemporaneous look and demeanor of the cast, which is blandly appealing without being truly commanding.
One can only speculate how viewers in Japan, one of Hollywood's biggest markets, will receive the film, which goes out of its way to be politically correct yet can't entirely avoid stereotypical treatment (even without that final scene, excised from the Japanese version, that declares how America bounced back to win the entire war). Most of the scenes set Japan are brief, with only one or two lines of subtitled dialogue, which are meant to offer the Evil Empire's view of the conflict. In this, and other aspects, the movie is only one notch above a WWII action picture.
Slightly better is the portrayal of the American politicos, particularly President Roosevelt (Jon Voight), who gets to pronounce the most nationalistic statements, including his famous declaration of war and his aggressive initiation of a counter attack. Challenged with doubts about the American ability to infiltrate Tokyo, Roosevelt rises courageously out of his wheelchair in one of the film's most exhilarating moments.
The filmmakers must have been encouraged by the lan and B.O. appeal of Saving Private Ryan, except that they failed to realize the novelty of Spielberg's approach and the magnitude of Tom Hanks' stardom. Revisiting a familiar genre that was all but dead, Spielberg reinvented the WWII movie by experimenting with the foundations of film grammar: image composition, framing and cutting, manipulation of sound. As shot by Janusz Kaminsky's piercing camera, the first 23 minutes represented the most revelatory battle ever recorded onscreen, a breathtakingly graphic portrayal of the violence and chaos at Omaha Beach on D Day.
More importantly, unlike most war movies, Saving Private Ryan didn't suggest that American soldiers fought for patriotic causes.