Pearl Harbor (2001)

13 May

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Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Michael Bay tends to make his big-budget action films an hour longer than they need to be. Apparently, how he and producer Jerry Bruckheimer manage to do that is to keep holding onto whatever eye candy they can create and market from their popcorn movies. Special effects take center while scripts are not usually called upon to serve them. And with “Pearl Harbor,” Bay and Bruckheimer take things a few steps further. This is their “epic” effort, set against a historical backdrop and attempting to tell a compelling human-interest story with a running time of 183 minutes. 183 minutes—if Bay’s earlier action films were an hour too long, then this one is about an hour-and-a-half too long.

Did Bay think he was making “Titanic?” Like that film, “Pearl Harbor” spends a majority of running time with a romantic couple and their conflicts with being together, with a historical event looming and waiting to come around until later in the film, when said-characters would have to endure true danger.

Actually, yes, I am convinced that this was an attempt to cash in on the success of “Titanic.” But the main problem with “Pearl Harbor” is the lazily-written screenplay. The dialogue is laughably bad; clichés in romances and war films are present; and the human-interest story is hardly interesting. So much money went into the look of “Pearl Harbor” that I’m surprised that the rest of it wasn’t used to create a more complex script. As it is, it looks nice, the cast is solid, the special effects are very impressive, and it has the potential to be something better than it is, given the subject matter which is admittedly captivating. Having a story set around the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 is interesting enough if given the right human-interest story. But I couldn’t care less about most of what was happening onscreen. That it runs over three hours in length makes it even more unbearable to watch.

The story centers on bomber pilots Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), who are best friends and practically brothers. Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) is a nurse who passed Rafe in a medical exam for the Air Corps, even though he is dyslexic. Rafe and Evelyn are fools for each other until Rafe announces to her that he’s joining the Eagle Squadron very soon.

Get this—Rafe gives Evelyn the news the night before he’s supposed to leave and denies her a night of romance so that the lust will be a good motivator not to be killed in the war, and return home. Then he tells her not to see him off, stating that if she does come, it proves that she loves him. Sheesh, this is the human-interest story we have to go through? That’s just the beginning. It gets worse as we endure a second romance between Evelyn and Danny, after Rafe is declared dead, killed in battle. And wouldn’t you know it—after all that time, we find that Rafe is still alive, as he comes home and discovers Evelyn’s relationship with Danny. And there you have it—a love triangle that will undoubtedly be interrupted and resolved by one of the key actions of World War II.

An hour-and-a-half into the proceedings is when we finally endure the attack on Pearl Harbor. Admittedly, it’s pretty intense and is told in a somewhat-credible way, given the goofiness of certain situations (such as a stutterer who alerts his fellow soldiers of the attackers, and even a private who runs out to find out what the commotion is all about, while brushing his teeth and wearing a towel). But here’s a major problem with this action sequence—we never got to know any of the soldiers getting killed in the attack. Rafe and Danny are unwinding from an argument the night before, and aren’t in the middle of the attack. And as for Evelyn, she and her giggling friends are attacked at the base hospital, even though I don’t think I’ve read that the Japanese fired on civilians. Everyone else is just an extra. That’s a very bad move to set up these three characters and not put them in real danger for the attack, and even worse not to give us memorable character traits for the ones that are getting killed.

I never cared for the protagonists, or the love-triangle they have to endure. Dramatic tension is cast aside for clichéd writing and uninteresting situations. The romance is recycled from what seems like soap-opera material. When the attack does come is when things are more interesting—even though the poorly-developed characters aren’t in much danger in that central sequence, at least we don’t have to deal with their story for a while. But once that’s done with, there’s still an hour left, with more monotonous characterization and dull conditions. You know you’re in trouble when you find yourself wishing for more over-the-top action in a Bay picture.

The only redeeming aspects of the final hour of “Pearl Harbor” are the moments involving actors playing true-life characters. In particular, Jon Voight (sporting a rubber chin) plays Franklin D. Roosevelt who of course declares that America join the war—he has a particularly “awesome” moment in which he, out of anger, wills himself to stand up from his wheelchair and stand up to Congress. Also entertaining is Alec Baldwin as General Doolittle, who late in the film states every single obligatory war-movie-speech cliché in the book. That is irritating yet funny at the same time.

I can’t really blame Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, and Kate Beckinsale because they are admittedly solid in their lazily constructed roles. The blame has to go to Randall Wallace’s screenplay. It lacks dramatic pull, wastes a great chunk of running-time on uninteresting characters, and lacks an element as vital as intelligence. “Pearl Harbor” is overlong, unexciting, and unremarkable. And it just shows everything that “Titanic” did right (whether you like it or not) and what this movie does wrong.

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