Remember when Humphrey Bogart told Ingrid Bergman that “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world?” Well, this is a story that comes down on the side of the hill of beans.
Although it tries mightily to follow the “Titanic” formula, “Pearl Harbor” is not going to inspire the same “let’s go see it again” spirit. Like “Titanic” (and “The Perfect Storm,” and “Twister,” and a zillion others), this movie attempts to tie a love story to a catastrophe, with the theory that if it can make us care, make us gasp, and make us cry, they’ll have a box-office bonanza. But both the love story and the war story have a synthetic feel to them that does not permit us to care enough. It’s worth seeing – but only once.
After a brief prologue, in which we meet the two male leads as young boys to see their passion for flying and their loyalty to each other, we open as the war is going on in Europe. America is sending equipment and supplies, but has not yet entered the war. The two boys, Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) are army pilots. Anxious to get some action, Rafe volunteers to go to England, where he can join an American division of the RAF. Before he leaves, he meets a pretty nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) and they fall in love. He leaves for England, and Danny and Evelyn are assigned half a world away, to the Naval Station at Pearl Harbor. When Rafe is reported killed, Evelyn and Danny are devastated. They comfort each other, and become involved. Rafe arrives to find them together, just before the Japanese attack. That attack, lasting just about as long on screen as it did in reality, is devastating to the unprepared Naval Station and to a country that thought it could stay out of the war. But Rafe and Danny train for a counter-attack on Tokyo to send Japan a message that America can and will punish those who attack us.
Director Michael Bay (“Armageddon”) has visual flair and superb command of action sequences. There are some nice moments, like Evelyn’s arrival at the hospital in Pearl Harbor, rows of neat white beds with just one occupant, being treated for sunburn. Dan Ackroyd is fine as an intelligence officer and Jon Voight, somewhere under a lot of make-up, shows us FDR’s compassion, political skill, and intelligence. Affleck, Hartnett, and Beckinsale look gorgeous and do their best to give some depth to the cardboard characters, but they cannot overcome a soapy plot and dialogue that is often wooden and sometimes wildly anachronistic. I do not think that anyone in 1941 spoke of somone’s “having too much time on their hands.” And I am pretty sure that no one, seeing the bombs dropping on Pearl Harbor, concluded that “World War II has just started.” For one thing, the war in Europe had been going on for a while, and for another, they had not started calling “The Great War” “World War I” yet. Rafe writes a lot of letters for a guy who is dyslexic. And can we please, please agree never again to have one of those scenes where some hot-shot flyboys break the rules and are then called on the carpet by crusty commanders who come across all disciplinarian but call them son and thinly disguise the “that’s just how I used to behave” twinkle in their eyes? We know producer Jerry Bruckheimer had a hit with “Top Gun,” but he does not have to make this one into “Maverick and Goose Go to War.”
Like last year’s “The Patriot,” the movie fails to provide any sense of the reason for the conflict. When asked why he fights, a character says nothing about freedom or fighting the Nazis. He just says that he wants “to matter,” a disconcertingly me-oriented answer from a would-be representative of the greatest generation.
No one wants them to demonize the people we fought in World War II, but they go too far in the other direction. It’s almost as though they were more interested in selling tickets in Japan than in giving any substance to the story. Cuba Gooding, Jr. does his best with a part that is awkwardly inserted into the main storyline.
The movie bends over backwards to be fair to the Japanese, portraying them as brave and loyal. But it is also dismayingly US-centric, showing (inaccurately) both the English and the Japanese in awe of American spirit and strength. The Japanese general says that he fears they have “awakened the sleeping giant.” And Rafe’s British commander says that if other Americans are like Rafe, he feels sorry for anyone who goes to battle with the US.
Parents should know that the movie features extended and intense battle violence with thousands of casualties, including characters we care about. Soldiers use strong language and joke about seduction techniques. A couple decides not to have sex because they do not want to have any regrets. Another couple does have sex and the woman becomes pregnant. Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays a real-life hero of World War II, the first black man to win the Navy Cross. The woman may be there because they thought it would be exciting and they would meet men, but when they are needed, they are strong, brave, and dedicated.
Famiies who see this movie should talk about the events that led to World War II and about some of the real-life characters who are depicted. Make sure that they know that in 1941 the armed services were segregated. The character played by Cuba Gooding, Jr., Dorie Miller, like most other black soldiers, was not trained to fight and was assigned to cooking and menial jobs.
Characters in the movie face choices that are well worth family discussion. Why didn’t the US realize how vulnerable it was to attack? How do you decide which wounded to help? What should Evelyn have done when Rafe returned? Why did the pilots volunteer for the raid on Japan?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other Michael Bay action spectaculars like “Armageddon” and “The Rock.” Fans of WWII movies will do better with “Saving Private Ryan,” “Mr. Roberts,” and “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” with Spencer Tracy as the real-life James Doolittle, portrayed in “Pearl Harbor” by Alec Baldwin. Mature audiences will also appreciate “From Here to Eternity,” a brilliant movie about soldiers stationed at Pearl Harbor before the attack.