Pearl Harbor (2001)Rated PG-13 for sustained intense war sequences, images of wounded, brief sensuality and some language.
Starring Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alec Baldwin.
Important Historical Event Given LCD Treatment
Pearl Harbor is what you get when you cross Independence Day with Titanic, with the result possessing the good qualities of neither. The movie gave me a stomachache, literally. Well, I can't say for sure if the movie caused my stomachache, but, with the way it went, I would like to claim that it did.
I expect lowest-common-denominator movies from a Jerry Bruckheimer production; that is to say, his movies will contain gratuitous action, a dumbed-down plot, and lots of macho yahoo-ness. When it works, it works; I consider The Rock a guilty pleasure, for example. Pearl Harbor, though, doesn't work as such a production. It's an important historical event and does not deserve to be weighed down with an overdose of cornball cheese, poor endeavors at being manipulative, shallow melodrama, cheap exposition, and action sequences which concentrate on big explosions. It panders to that stand-up-and-cheer mentality so obviously that it's off-putting. It doesn't help that the movie provides the audience nothing substantial to cheer for, giving us only two-dimensional cookie-cutter characters. It also doesn't help that it keeps this up for three hours, all of which felt like four hours.
By the time the movie is done, you realize that it had no vision and no focus. The plot centralizes on three main characters: Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck), his childhood best friend Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), and a wartime nurse named Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale). Rafe is the cocky guy who only wants to fly in combat. Danny is a meek individual, but also happens to be a crack pilot. Rafe falls for the good-hearted Evelyn early on, but then leaves to join the American pilots fighting in Europe. Eventually, a love triangle develops. Since this love triangle and its resolution make up the majority of the story, the war and the attack on Pearl Harbor can almost be seen as backdrop. It might have worked that way, but the movie doesn't leave it at that. There are several simplistic scenes which show the Japanese developing the strategy for the attack and the Americans not taking the threat of a Japanese attack seriously. Actually, using the word "developing" is stretching it. The reasons for the attack, the preparations for it, and the Americans' reasons for slacking off are dumbed down so much it's as if the filmmakers didn't want to offend any member of the audience by mistaking one for a history major. And yet it does drop in to the war rooms so that we can see what's going on behind-the-scenes. Now my question is: Why? Is this movie about the love triangle, or about the attack on Pearl Harbor? One doesn't really have anything to do with the other; it feels like this weak love story could've been inserted into any other war/battle/disaster. Meanwhile, the attack on Pearl Harbor isn't enhanced in any way by the love story. Evelyn pretty much sums it up in a scene where she is talking about how the romantic affairs are going and says, referring to the attack, "and then all this happened." Yes, the attack on Pearl Harbor is summarily dismissed as "all this," just getting in the way of love.
So there's two storylines, one major and one minor. The stronger one could support the weaker one but, unfortunately, both are weak. I've already partially discussed how the event that triggered America's active entry in to the war is treated. One would think the love story would have some substance, but one would be wrong there too. It's as simplistic as can be (I'm summing it up here, so those who are very wary of spoilers should skip the rest of this paragraph): cocky guy who wishes he was in Top Gun falls for pretty nurse with no particularly identifiable personality-trait. Best friend spends whole movie looking sad and concerned, and that expression almost never changes. When cocky guy is assumed killed in battle, the best friend consoles girl and they fall in love. But guess what? Cocky guy's not really dead, and boy is he mad at his so-called best friend. The development of this takes over half the movie, and all we can do is mutter, "move it along, now."
Then there's the attack itself. It's a well-produced sequence, to be sure, but it gave me a mixed message. Watch as the Japanese swoop in and bomb all the U.S. ships and strafe the helpless military personnel. Unfortunately, we're prepared for it in such a way that we actually feel little dread in watching the incident. The Japanese strategists are seen as stern and efficient, while the Americans are seen as so accepting in their unpreparedness, they're practically laughing at the idea that they would ever need or utilize a medical facility in Hawaii. The uh-oh feeling we're supposed to have is emphasized in a scene where one captain says that he has "a feeling" that Pearl Harbor will be attacked, and that it's based on nothing more than a feeling. Naturally, his feeling is dismissed. All this lends to a perception of Americans as unwise, and won't the attack teach them a thing or too? So when the attack starts and you want to start feeling bad about all the casualties, you can't. We, the audience, have been prepped by the movie to see the Japanese strategy as "brilliant" and the American response to potential threat as lackadaisacal. We can see the attack coming and we are not surprised nor shocked by the results. Naturally, history prepares us to expect the event during the course of the movie, but the movie doesn't help matters with the method it chooses to build up to the attack. Even worse, the battle is shot in such an exciting way, with close-ups of torpedoes and the cameras following Japanese planes as if they were thrill rides while they swoop in formations over smoking ships, that you don't know if you're supposed to feel disgusted at the carnage or if you're supposed to feel charged by the action. This is a disastrous event, but it's played like the alien attacks in Independence Day. I wanted to feel bad about the devastation and not ooh and ahh at the explosions.
After the attack sequence is over, we return to the cheesy dialogue, watch Alec Baldwin play Doolittle as if he was Michael Ironside's character in Starship Troopers, and wonder when the film is going to get to its predicatable conclusion and just end. I really lost interest by this point. Doolittle warns that the counter-attack on Tokyo may prove fatal to all the pilots involved, but I didn't care anymore. I couldn't attach any emotions to the main characters early in the movie, so how I could I care if they came back alive now? Maybe if they weren't being so cheesy and melodramatic in the first hour I could have identified with them as real people that I could be concerned about. I have to admit, I actually got bored.
The movie tried so hard, so very hard, to get the audience's emotions to sway the way it wanted them to, but when its strategy for achieving that is to use the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the audience may end up laughing. A minor character's loved one, whom we barely got to know, died. Cry now. Watch Doolittle give manipulative speech about getting revenge on "those bastards." Let your feelings of vengeance swell up now. And then there's my favorite: President Roosevelt has just been told that a counter-attack can not be done. So then he snaps the braces from his legs and begins to stand up, pushing away those who would catch him if he falls. As he stands erect, he says, "Don't tell me what can and can't be done!" OK, audience, feel inspired! I don't know if the real FDR ever did that, but, boy, did that feel canned in the movie.
Members of the Japanese American Citizens League were concerned that revisiting Pearl Harbor and showing the Japanese in a negative light would result in backlashes against Asian Americans, but, quite frankly, the American public has to buy into this movie first for that to happen. The movie is extremely shallow and if viewers see it that way, there's nothing to worry about. If anything, the ones who should feel offended are those who are actually connected in real life to the "day that will live in infamy." Thousands of people died there, and the best this movie that's called Pearl Harbor can do is treat it like a corny popcorn event and waste more than half of our time with this boring love triangle?
©Jeffrey Chen, May 26, 2001