Director(s): Michael Bay
Writer(s): Randall Wallace
Reviewed by: Ian Evans on
Release Date(s)May 25, 2001 - Wide
If director Michael Bay had taken the $135 million budget of Pearl Harbor and purchased dynamite with it, he could have had exactly the same result: a very expensive bomb.
Touchstone Picture’s Pearl Harbor focuses on the lives of three people – two pilots and a Navy nurse – and how the events leading up to, and following, the attack on Pearl Harbor affect them and the people around them.
Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) have been friends since childhood and have always dreamed of being pilots. They join the US Army Air Corps and prove themselves to be excellent pilots who take their planes and courage to the edge of the envelope.
While war is raging overseas, the United States’ only involvement is sending aid to the British. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt wonders how much longer Americans can go on considering Hitler and the Nazis to be “Europe’s problem.”
Rafe volunteers for the Royal Air Force’s Eagle Squadron, a unit composed of pilots from neutral countries that fought alongside the British during the Battle of Britain. When he’s accepted to the unit his heart is torn because he’s fallen in love with a Navy nurse, Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale).
Evelyn, Danny and their friends all get transferred to Hawaii, which everyone believes is about as far away from the war as possible. After Rafe is shot down in Britain, he’s believed to be dead and the third point of the love triangle is formed when Evelyn and Danny find themselves together.
This setup seems to go on for a long, slow, syrupy Hallmark card amount of time. Rafe returns just before the attack on Pearl and he and Danny have their own private battle.
Then we finally get to the computer enhanced special effects moment we’ve been waiting for. The script has previously tossed a very small bone to the political and economic reasons behind the Japanese attack. A subtitled bit of dialogue from the Japanese military planners stating that the US oil embargo is strangling them. That’s it. Big note: If you’re taking a history class don’t try and use this as a quick study. Read your textbook. If you have to rent a film to help you out, get Tora! Tora! Tora! instead.
The battle scene is about forty minutes in length. It’s about twice as long as the opening battle scene in __Saving Private Ryan and packs about half the emotional punch. The attack is stunning to watch but is ultimately devoid of the small, emotional moments contained in the Spielberg battle.
Besides the trio of lovers, the film also features performances by Cuba Gooding Jr., Dan Aykroyd, Jon Voight, Mako, Colm Feore, Tom Sizemore and Alec Baldwin. All of these actors are fine performers but none of them is given the space they need and their characters are never fully developed. Cuba’s role, Dorie Miller, portrays one of the first African-Americans honored by the government for valor. His role feels stapled on to the film and acts like a ten minute lesson on how the Navy of that time was segregated. Voight is amazing and barely recognizable as FDR and Baldwin is able to combine the heroic glamour of the younger pilots with the experience and strength of an older warrior.
If only a fraction of the film’s massive budget had been spent working on Randall Wallace’s script. The line is full of cliched clunkers – big, sloppy, hit-the-ground-like-a-dud clunkers. The audience I saw it with often chuckled at lines that bore more overblown patriotic luggage than the flag-waving films made during the war. Memo to Randall: Real people, even heroic, valiant people, don’t speak lines like this. Hell, even actors portraying heroes shouldn’t have to speak words like this. In the middle of any one of Alec Baldwin’s scenes portraying war hero Jimmy Doolittle, he has to open the bomb bay doors and destroy the moment with an awful line.
The relationships are shallow. Who cares or even understands why Evelyn, Rafe and Danny get involved? Their friends fight and die but we’ve learned so little about them that they may as well be one of the nameless sailors who die during the attack.
And Michael Bay. Slow down! Take a minute to linger on a moment, an emotion, a thought. There’s one slow motion shot of Baldwin and his unit strolling out of the hangar that is so reminiscent of Armageddon that you keep looking for Bruce Willis in the group of pilots.
Pearl Harbor could have been so much more. At three hours, it’s hard to believe it’s so much less.