directed by Michael Bay with Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, and Kate Beckinsale opens May 25 at Cinerama, Majestic Bay, Metro, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, and others
THE BIG ORANGE fireball that defines modern action movies was practically invented at Pearl Harbor. News photos taken shortly after the attack show stunned sailors in the foreground with airplanes, hangars, and battleships burning behind them, oily black smoke towering into the sky. Indeed, all of World War II has now been incorporated into our collective cinematic memory, and it can be hard to separate scene from event, movie from battle. (Let's not even start with Ronald Reagan.) So how to approach something so ineluctably real and historical? The entire 20th century practically pivots around December 7, 1941. No wonder the best war flicks, like From Here to Eternity, deal with the catastrophe only indirectly.
Not so Michael Bay. The spectacular-minded director (Armageddon, The Rock) puts the Japanese assault precisely at the midpoint of Pearl Harbor, 90 minutes into an almost three-hour film. Bravo for that. For the next half-hour we're treated to a punishing assault of near-constant action, with computer-generated effects and chest-thudding explosions rocking the theater. The sequence seems real, not so vivid as Saving Private Ryan's D-Day landing, not so violent or immediate, but with enough verisimilitude to honor veterans and awe anyone who's never experienced combat. Judged by those 30 minutes alone, Pearl is a success.
As for the other 150, the 90 minutes spent establishing a love triangle is too long to wait for the CG Zeroes to appear. In golden Tennessee fields, we meet aspiring pilots and boyhood pals Danny and Rafe. The first of a series of wildly literal lines from Braveheart writer Randall Wallace has Danny tell Rafe, "You're my best friend." (Plot Point One.) Flash forward a few years and expository newsreels later, and the lads have grown into strapping Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett (very impressive in O, on view at SIFF). They both fall for the same gal, nurse Evelyn (The Golden Bowl's Kate Beckinsale), establishing Plot Point Two.
ALL THE BUILDUP is presumably meant to raise tension—when will those crafty-but-noble Japanese strike?—but its real justification is to make Pearl a date movie. Judged by that standard, Pearl isn't so successful. Bay duly plods through romantic high jinks and cutesy courtship clich鳬 but his heart's not in it. The dialogue's clunky and the scenes feel borrowed. Performers pose attractively in various romantic settings (beaches, train stations, more beaches), but they look as fidgety as the audience feels. The love triangle doesn't quite work, either; Danny (Hartnett) and Rafe (Affleck) plainly love each other, but also find the dangerous thrill of combat sexier than safe Evelyn.
Bay is further burdened by Pearl's pedantry for anyone not familiar with WWII (which is to say most of his youthful intended audience), requiring various mini-lessons on the causes of the Japanese assault. John Voight shows up as FDR; Dan Aykroyd's naval intelligence officer helpfully explains of the possible attack, "It's the worst thing that could happen." (Later, a Japanese officer reminds us, "We have achieved surprise," which is more than can be said of the movie.) Finally, since all good grudges demand box-office payback, Alec Baldwin's on hand as Col. Jimmy Doolittle, who leads a perilous, morale-boosting 1942 raid on Tokyo with Danny and Rafe among his men.
Yet Pearl is no ugly revenge flick. It may be square and conventional, lumbering and sentimental (like Titanic without song), but those aren't the worst qualities in a movie—indeed, those may be the qualities that most often arise from trauma. Defeat oddly engenders patriotism, as in The Alamo (and Pearl is certainly a far better flick than that John Wayne chestnut). Bay skims over the bloody aftermath to Pearl Harbor, although distorted-lens hospital scenes evoke the carnage and chaos Evelyn faces. Pearl's front-loaded with love, but doesn't completely overlook mortality. (Affleck holding hands with an unseen drowning sailor is a more valuable shot than all those CG torpedoes.)
So far as traditional summer entertainment is concerned, Pearl Harbor works best in the sense that—after the dull romantic prelude—you're actually rooting for the Japanese to attack.