I'll say this for PEARL HARBOR: it is very pretty to look at.
Beautiful stars, gorgeous fashions and hairdos, shimmering Hawaii. Even
in the most depressing settings (say, gloomy, besieged Britain) the
lighting and camera angles never fail to soothe the eye. Even the attack
itself is beautiful - housewives hanging laundry and kids playing baseball
(all white, of course) look up from low-angle amazement as Japanese
Zeros and bombers float serenely above the lush landscape on their way
to kill; every sailor's uniform is freshly pressed and starched and
spotlessly white; the stuntmen, in typical form, dutifully bounce out
of bunkers when the timing devices go off and the CGI explosions flame
in beautiful reds and yellows. Even the blood is minimal, and there
are no Saving Private Ryan guts to bother anyone's sensibilities.
there's the real nub of this film's despicable character: for all the
turgidity of the acting, the lameness of the script, the confusion of
the editing, the dullness of the score, what stands out as most reprehensible
is the utter commericial cynicism of this piece. Not a moment of the
film feels genuine. Every scene is calculated to some imagined audience
effect and box-office return, whether in Peoria or Yokahama.
The central story, such as it is - Titanic meets Top Gun
in a bi-plane. Two boys play Great War flying aces in Daddy's cropduster,
but Daddy is a complicated man. He slaps his kid around, only to be
whacked by the friend, calling the older man a "German" (not a Bosch,
not a Hun). Insult, it turns out, hurts more than injury, for Daddy
had been in the trenches in the War to End All Wars and he stalks off
with a thousand-yard stare while his boy catches up to him and assures
him that all is really well, after all.
Time passes in a two-line newsreel narration that elides a decade and
a half of Lucky Lindy, the court martial of Billy Mitchell, the Great
Depression, the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, the Munich Crisis, the
invasion of Poland, and the start of World War II. The pals have grown
up to be Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, their pecs and biceps having
grown in proportion to the loss of their cracker accents. Affleck, it
turns out, has big plans - while his countrymen sit on their isolationist
duffs, he'll volunteer to help the plucky Brits keep the Nazi wolf at
bay. He also makes sure that Hartnett stays stateside - but whether
out of botherly concern, jealousy, or something deeper is not clear.
stuck in the "butt" by Army Nurse Kate Beckinsale, Affleck of course
falls hopelessly in love with her, all this related by Beckinsale to
her giggling cohorts (who never seem to have to wear nurse's uniforms)
in a completely unnecessary flashback. (One gets to see, a la Top
Gun, a lot of male "butt" in this thing - even though terms like
"rear end," "derriere," "backside" or even "ass" would be more fitting
to the time.) Affleck, having passed his physical, is now a flying lieutenant.
(It was a simpler time, after all. No one bothered with such frills
as Basic Training.) He heads off to England, vowing true, chaste love
with his beloved, and leaving her only his origami bird. (Which raises
the sinister question: "ORIGAMI!? Is this guy really a Jap spy!?")
Despite numerous warnings, Affleck is grieved to discover that War
is Hell after all, and shot down in a dogfight (narrated by pilot chatter
in Top Gun style, but without benefit of actual radios), he ditches
in the English Channel. Believing their mutual love to be dead, Beckinsale
and Hartnett, in Hawaii, comfort each other, chastity giving way to
passion in a parachute packing room, silk and light tastefully playing
about the lovers in a scene that makes that back seat of the car in
Titanic look discreet.
back in the larger world, Franklin Roosevelt (Jon Voight) battles to
lend-lease ships and supplies for the "Brits," while the Japanese grimly
prepare for a war foisted on them by a US oil embargo. Ten years of
imperialist murder and devastation in Korea, Manchuria, and China are
never mentioned; the complex nature of cultural and historical forces
that led to the wartime military dictatorship, of course, are never
even hinted at.
this is just backstory, though, to the real concerns of three people,
whose lives, it turns out, do amount to more than several hills of beans
in this crazy world, with the result that one would expect from eating
those hills of beans. Affleck returns to Hawaii with nary a scratch
on him, having been kept in aspic by the French Resistance all this
time. (The RAF, it seems, does not need a Yank after all.) To complicate
matters, the cable announcing his survival reaches Hartnett, and Beckinsale
discovers that she's been knocked up, all on the same day as his return.
The timing does not make a lick of sense, but none of that really matters
at all, any more than the fact that getting pregnant would give a military
nurse the boot or worse.
relationship with Beckinsale is not nearly as important as the rift
between the two pals, who slug it out in a Tikki bar (the only scene
that has actual Hawaiians - three! count 'em!- in it). As the MPs arrive
on the scene, the two escape being clapped in the "brig" (not an Army
"stockade"--where we might at least have gotten to see a version of
Ernest Borgnine beat the crap out of them) by running off to the beach
in a car and spending the night together under the stars. The next morning,
inconveniently, is December 7, 1941.
To make a very long story mercifully short, let it suffice to say that:
1. Japs attack
2. Affleck and Hartnett and Beckinsale all act heroically
3. Lots of other stuff I won't spoil for you, even though it's utterly
trite and predictable.
somewhere in all this, Cuba Gooding, Jr. proves his prowess as a boxer
and proves himself a Credit to His Race by shooting down Jap planes.
Oh, yeah. Thousands of people die and the Pacific fleet is destroyed
I hope I've made it clear that to call this a "soap opera" is to dishonor
soap. To call this a "historical film" is to dishonor history. Actually,
to call this a "film" at all is to dishonor cinema. Randall Wallace's
writing credit forgot to acknowledge the help of Skippy's Book of Film
Dialogue Clichés. The editing tangles time into knots. The music
drones on and on, altering only in volume, never in banality. Because
there is no real sense of American culture at the time, the real impact
of the bombing is never felt. Nothing here will offend the Japanese
or German markets. Nothing here will make one understand American culture
or the military mind. Nothing here will evoke any but the most conditioned
One sees no guts, one feels no glory. At least there were moments in
Saving Private Ryan that struck home; at least Titanic
had a plot with a coherent course of action and an ending that could
make one understand that more than a ship was going down. In Pearl
Harbor, blood is spilled and many ships go down, and nothing matters
more than whether Affleck and Hartnett will speak to each other again.
When William Butler Yeats had a short play of his premiere with Shaw's
Arms and the Man, he said the Shaw play made him think of a smiling
sewing machine, merrily chattering along. At least Shaw had wit and
talent. Pearl Harbor is a broken sewing machine of a movie, and it stitches
a ragged, snagged, and crooked line.
©2001 Don Larsson