Film Score: Hans Zimmer Cinematography: John Schwartzman
Starring: Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett and Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Gambit Weekly during 1997 and 1998 was tremendously insightful, as are the reviews in his novel With Extreme Prejudice and his nonfiction masterpiece Rowing to Sweden. In his review of Titanic he stated, “This movie is way longer than necessary and foolishly wasteful. At times it is also gratingly dumb. But all that said, you ought to go see Titanic. It's chock full of hokum, but it delivers an experience you can only get at the movies.” Though I’m sure he would disagree with me about this film, I feel the same way about Pearl Harbor. It’s not a good film at all, and yet . . . it delivers a certain experience that can only be found in motion pictures, and I find my self compelled to watch it for the same kind of experience as that found in Titanic.
The film begins with a prologue, two farm boys from Tennessee who want to be fighter pilots. The older one is not very smart, but his dad flies a crop duster. The younger boy is smarter and his father, a nice bit part by William Fichtner, doesn’t want him hanging around him. But the two are best friends. Fast-forward to World War II and both the boys, Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, are pilots training for war. Affleck volunteers to go to England to fight, before his age causes him to miss out on combat before the U.S. enters the war. Before he leaves, however, he falls in love with a beautiful nurse, Kate Beckinsale, and introduces her to Hartnett. In England Affleck is shot down over the Channel and presumed dead. This naturally brings Beckinsale and Hartnett together with predictable consequences. And all of this happens before the attack on December 7th. When the attack does come, the film does a nice job of showing the complacency, the panic, and the heroics that happened on that day.
It’s difficult to find ways to praise a film that has little to recommend it, and so I’m not going to try. Just as in films like Titanic or Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the post-production manipulation of the film is extensive, but the rich backgrounds, the sepia tones and the post-card colors ultimately feel artificial rather than impressive. CGI effects are everywhere, as you might expect in a war film, and for the most part those work. The problem is that the special effects are used even when they don’t need to be, in train stations and airplane hangers, and because of their overuse what might initially seem like sumptuous effects soon begins to feel like laziness. Thirty or forty years ago filmmakers had to find ways to realistically show the things that needed to be in the film and, whatever techniques they had to use in the end, the result was usually something realistic. Today, films like The Lord of the Rings or Pearl Harbor are barely distinguishable from computer animation.
But even the technical deficiencies of the film pale in comparison to the over-ripe script, little more than a Disney film for grownups. As artificial as the special effects seem, so is the love story. And yet, just as in Titanic, the syrupy sentiment works if you let it. The same can be said for the patriotic claptrap. Sure it’s obvious, but if you leave your cynicism in the lobby, it can make you feel proud. But there are a hundred other things to pick on as well. The nurses in the military back then were all evidently gorgeous, the soldiers all good looking, everything was clean and tidy, and people talked like they were in a TV sit-com. In addition, Cuba Gooding Jr. is wasted in an embarrassing role as a black cook, a legitimate role, but without any backstory it becomes little more than a cliché. Also wasted are Alec Baldwin who acts like a cardboard cutout as James Doolittle, Tom Sizemore as a cigar-chewing sergeant, Jon Voight as a pasty-faced FDR, and Dan Akyroyd as an intelligence officer in Washington, D.C.
What remains, then, are the battle scenes, not only in Hawaii but the British Channel dogfights. They are exciting, impressive, and the centerpiece of the film, though there are still problems with them. To this date, Tora! Tora! Tora! is easily the best film about the attack on Pearl Harbor ever made. When those Japanese Zeros come in flying low and slow across the harbor there is nothing more chilling. Michael Bay’s planes, on the other hand, whiz around like space ships from a sci-fi movie. It’s a spectacle, no doubt, but it can hardly be seen as historically accurate. But where Tora! Tora! Tora! is told from the Japanese perspective, Pearl Harbor is definitely American, and attempts to show all the aspects of the war both before and after the attack. So until another American film comes along, we’re stuck with Pearl Harbor, a bloated, vacuous motion picture that nevertheless still contains some of the most intense recreations of the horror that happened on this day of infamy.