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Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor was released in 2001, which also marked the 60th anniversary of the tragic event. Like Titanic before it, Pearl Harbor took an actual event and interwove what was real with a fictitious love story. Actual minor characters were likewise employed to further the dramatic narrative of the protagonists, but that’s about where the similarities of the two films ends.
Pearl Harbor focuses on three main characters – pilots Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), and nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale). The story begins in January 1941 in New York. Rafe and Danny are training in the air, and we learn that they are reckless and risk-taking. They are chewed out by Lt. Col. Doolittle (Alec Baldwin in another great supporting role). Rafe is sent to join the British in their fight against the Nazis. Danny is angry that Rafe is going to war. The notion is that these two are lifelong friends, as close as brothers, but the uneven dialogue between them is unconvincing.
Evelyn and her fellow nurses are likewise meant to have a sisterly bond, but while Beckinsale is adequate, her supporting cast members, including a then-unknown Jennifer Garner, are lifeless and devoid of any unique character traits.
So in New York City, the nurses and pilots pair up, and Rafe is immediately smitten with Evelyn. They spend four weeks getting to know one another and they fall in love. Now, I have no problems with a good love story, but the operative word is good, and this one is not. It feels forced and insincere. With Pearl Harbor, Michael Bay attempted to do something similar to Titanic, but whereas Titanic succeeded with two great actors being led by a great director, Pearl Harbor tripped over itself. Backstory and character development are crucial elements of compelling storytelling, but here, they get in the way of the story rather than advancing it.
On the eve of his departure for Europe, Rafe professes his love to Evelyn. At this point, we’re thirty minutes into the movie, and Rafe hasn’t even gone to Europe yet, let alone any of our characters arriving at Pearl Harbor. When watching the movie for the first time, the viewer is likely checking his watch with the realization that this is going to be a long movie, and while many great movies run three hours, they do so for justifiable reasons, but I fail to see how anyone could justify Pearl Harbor’s three-hour run time.
Rafe arrives in Britain, and with a line of dialogue that almost makes one cringe, says to his commanding officer, I’m not here to die, Sir. I’m anxious to matter.
We cut to the White House and are first introduced to President Roosevelt, played convincingly by Jon Voigt in one of the film’s few saving graces. Next, we cut to Japan and learn that the oil embargo has forced the Japanese to launch a sudden, massive attack against the U.S. Next, we cut to our first glimpse of Pearl Harbor, thirty-five minutes into the movie, and we see that Evelyn and her fellow nurses are reporting for duty. In Hawaii, we’re introduced to Sgt. Earl Sistern (Tom Sizemore) as Danny and the other pilots also arrive. These rapid character introductions are disjointed and out-of-place following thirty minutes devoted mostly to Rafe and Evelyn. As a result, interesting minor characters are easily overlooked, despite being more compelling than any of the lead roles.
Rafe writes letters to Evelyn, and his words are utterly unbelievable. His flowery prose does nothing to represent the fact that he’s an uneducated pilot with dyslexia, and as they’re read in voiceover by Ben Affleck, it’s almost too much to bear.
Forty minutes in, we have a montage that shows the Japanese military preparing for their sneak attack. These are the first dramatic, attention-grabbing moments of the movie. It is only now that the audience has any sense of the impending danger. The antagonist is the Japanese military itself, but we’ve been forced to sit through forty minutes of painful movie watching just to reach this point.
Rafe and the British get into a dogfight with German planes, and we are at last treated to a couple of moments of action sequences that of course are what make Michael Bay movies palatable. Rafe’s plane goes down in the sea. Rafe’s condition is momentarily unknown. With that, the story is finally able to move to Pearl Harbor, forty-five minutes in. We meet another supporting character, Petty Officer Doris Miller (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who sorely lacks adequate screen time.
The story has skipped ahead three months, bringing us closer to December 1941, but not close enough. Danny and Evelyn’s relationship has continued to bloom. It’s early-November, and U.S. Naval Intelligence discusses the fact that two whole Japanese aircraft carrier divisions have completely disappeared somewhere in the Pacific. This scene serves a reminder to younger generations what it was like before satellites and GPS. But we’re now an hour into the movie and we’re still a month from the attack.
The Japanese send spies to Hawaii for recon photos. Once more, a glimpse of the enemy to remind the audience just who the movie’s antagonist is. This, however, is followed by more sappy, prolonged love scenes with Danny and Evelyn. We cut back to U.S. Naval Intelligence again in D.C. and are introduced to one more minor character worth noting – Capt. Thurman (Dan Ackroyd.) He is collected and methodical in his analyses and concludes that Japan plans to attack Pearl Harbor, but, as history obviously tells us, his warnings fall on deaf ears.
As the Japanese naval fleet chugs across the Pacific, the tension is finally building, but it’s coming too little too late and only as a consequence of sitting through seventy minutes of painful tedium. A subtitle informs us that it’s December 5, 1941, which does add to the escalating drama but only to a viewer that knows the attack is just two days away.
Rafe re-enters Danny and Evelyn’s lives, not dead after all. But for Rafe, Danny and Evelyn to all be in Pearl Harbor at the same time, and for Rafe to arrive just forty-eight hours before the attack? Too convenient and implausible. Rafe gets the news that Evelyn and Danny are together now. Rafe, drunk, takes a swing at Danny. They fight, and before the military police can arrest them, they both flee the bar in the same car. Somehow, they actually park the car on a beach and sleep it off, suddenly best friends again, without Evelyn standing between them. I don’t know how that happened. But then, at dawn, they awaken as the attack begins.
By now, they movie is roughly half over. We’ve been forced to sit through nearly ninety minutes to reach this point. The movie effectively shows us the Americans’ unpreparedness. Capt. Thurman decodes the Japanese messages, but too late. The next thirty minutes are relatively dramatic, yet the attack also lacks suspense and surprise because it’s not a battle as much as it is a one-sided slaughter, and practically any audience member will know the outcome. Only when Danny and Rafe predictably take to the air is the action intensified.
The attack on Pearl Harbor is a stunning visual and auditory achievement – winning an Oscar for Sound Editing – but to characterize it as thrilling or entertaining would be to ignore the fact that it’s the depiction of the deaths of three thousand Americans. It’s more sobering than entertaining, and within the context of a Michael Bay summertime movie with a cheesy romance, it in fact is insincere and disrespectful to the actual event. Any war movie preceded by Saving Private Ryan - which Pearl Harbor was - should take their cues from Steven Spielberg’s epic homage to America’s greatest generation. D-Day veterans appreciated the realism and sincerity of Saving Private Ryan, but few Pearl Harbor survivors said the same of Bay’s film.
The attack and its horrible aftermath push the limits of the PG13 rating, but the violence is countered with a glaring lack of obscenities that undoubtedly were repeated endlessly that sad morning. Indeed, Earl and Rafe both call the attackers Jap suckers. Huh? It almost seems that any effective war movie by its very nature should garner an R rating.
The emotional high point of Pearl Harbor occurs when Roosevelt rises from his wheelchair in a symbolic gesture of absolute defiance and utters those famous words: December seventh, nineteen forty-one, a date which will live in infamy... He declares war on Japan. A raid on Tokyo is planned and led by Doolittle. Of course, Danny and Rafe are among the pilots, as is Doolittle himself. The planes hit their marks but are too low on fuel to return to their carrier, so they crash land in China. This raid is a fascinating, oft-overlooked chapter of World War II, but it is attached to the end of Pearl Harbor almost as an afterthought. This is also where Danny and Rafe’s journey comes to an end, and the pregnant Evelyn is left to deal with the aftermath.
After the spectacle of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Doolittle raid is an anticlimatic conclusion. Saving Private Ryan, again in comparison, followed the jaw-dropping realism of the D-Day landing with a nearly-equal concluding battle – no easy feat – whereas Pearl Harbor failed to do so.
Michael Bay cannot be solely to blame for Pearl Harbor’s failure. He worked from a script by Randall Wallace that feature one-dimensional lead characters, and lead roles that were also poorly cast. As stated earlier, the supporting roles were one of the film’s saving graces. The Pearl Harbor attack sequence was amazing, but it came ninety minutes into the movie. At three hours, Pearl Harbor was bloated and unnecessarily long. The attack ought to have occurred a full forty-five minutes earlier than it did. Doing so would have given the picture a much more reasonable run time.
War movies are most effective when they portray the extreme human emotions derivative of the battlefield, and to this end, filmmakers could learn much from the more minimalist approaches of Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima or Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Michael Bay attempted something grandiose with Pearl Harbor, and he could be commended for trying, but ultimately he failed.