by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I picked Pearl Harbor — all 183 minutes of it — the 2001 Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay production for Disney’s Touchstone label, which basically compares to the 1970 Tora! Tora! Tora! (a film that was ripped apart by the critics when it first came out but has since acquired a reputation for historical accuracy and dramatic truth) the way the 1997 James Cameron Titanic does to A Night to Remember: a movie that writes fictional characters into the actual story as opposed to one that finds all the drama it needs in the real deal: the actual people and events. People who liked Pearl Harbor basically praised it for the action scenes — which are indeed quite spectacular; according to imdb.com this film set a record for the sheer amount of explosives used on any single movie — and that despite the fact that a lot of the action shots are quite obviously wholly or partly computer-generated. People who didn’t like it focused on the lame romantic triangle that formed the backbone of the fictional plot.
The movie opens in 1923 in Tennessee, where Rafe McCauley and his best friend Danny Walker have built a fake airplane in a barn — McCauley’s father (or is it Walker’s? I can’t remember!) is actually an aviator who makes his living doing crop dusting (a job that didn’t actually exist until the end of World War II) and he’s also a World War I veteran who says, in a rare moment of candor after the boys have actually started his real plane and flown it for a few seconds before landing it (fortunately unscathed, though except for that detail the scene seemed so much like the opening of that obscure 1935 MGM “B” Pursuit I wondered if Michael Bay and/or his writer, Randall Wallace, had seen it), that they shouldn’t be playing at war because real war is so terrible they won’t want to be joking about it. Then the film cuts forward to January 1941, when McCauley and Walker have grown up to be Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, respectively, and they’re both training for the U.S. Army Air Corps (it was only after World War II that the Air Force became a separate branch of the U.S. military) and romancing several nurses at the Army hospitals, including one in particular, Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale).
McCauley gets a volunteer assignment flying in London in the Eagle Squadron (which really existed; it was a chance for American flyers anxious to fight on the side of the Allies to do so, though no one could actually join the Eagle Squadron on loan from the U.S. military as McCauley does in the film; you had to resign your U.S. commission and re-enlist in someone else’s air corps, usually Canada’s), flies as one of Winston Churchill’s famous “Few” and ultimately gets shot down over the English Channel and is presumed dead. Meanwhile, Walker, Evelyn and the movie’s other principals (including Red Winkle, played by Ewen Bremmer in the spirit of Frank McHugh or Allen Jenkins, except that one decidedly unfunny element of his “comic relief” is that he has to fart a lot) get assigned to Hawai’i, where they’re stationed at Pearl Harbor (the title character finally appears 35 minutes into this three-hour movie) and are supposed to be protecting the U.S. fleet from attack — only the base commander is convinced nobody could attack Pearl Harbor so he thinks the only real danger is sabotage, which is why he parks all the planes wingtip-to-wingtip, which famously made them sitting ducks when the Japanese actually did attack. (Like Tora! Tora! Tora!, this film explains both the reason the U.S. military thought Pearl Harbor was immune from air attack and how the Japanese pulled it off; the Americans were convinced that air-launched torpedoes would sink harmlessly in the shallow waters of the harbor, and the Japanese figured out that if they made the torpedoes’ stabilizing fins out of wood instead of metal, they’d remain afloat in the water long enough to hit their targets.)
Anyway, while they’re cavorting around the island and waiting (unknowingly) for the war to begin, Walker and Evelyn, believing McCauley to be dead — can you say Casablanca? — drift into an affair, and when McCauley shows up very much alive and learns that his best friend has been fucking his girlfriend, he wants to and in fact does beat the guy up. (Somehow the makers of Casablanca were able to figure out a way for Rick Blaine and Victor Laszlo to resolve their similar situation without fisticuffs.) There are intercuts between the scenes on the island and the councils in both the American and Japanese governments (the actors playing Japanese bigwigs get to speak Japanese, with English subtitles for our benefit, but the Japanese pilot readying himself for the mission — and, incidentally, putting on the white scarf worn by the kamikazes even though that was a much later development in the war — is forced to say his farewell prayers in horribly accented English; also an imdb.com commentator noted that the depiction of the Japanese officials holding their planning meetings outdoors is wrong, since Japanese would regard even the suggestion of an outdoor meeting as an insult), with Jon Voight playing President Franklin D. Roosevelt — apparently Voight is a long-time devotee of F.D.R. and actively lobbied for the role, though he plays him in a smarmy voice that doesn’t sound at all like the real one and there’s a really tacky scene when, in overruling his Cabinet and authorizing the Doolittle raid on Tokyo (more on that later), he clambers out of his wheelchair, uses his crutches, stands upright (or at least leans against the conference table) and dares anyone to tell him that something is impossible.
Indeed, the biggest problem with Pearl Harbor is not only that it’s over three hours long (one could readily imagine a Warners hack like Lloyd Bacon or Ray Enright getting it on and off the screen in 100 minutes, tops) but that so much of that time is filled with scenes that were clichéd before the filmmakers were born — hell, that were clichéd before the attack on Pearl Harbor even happened! All too much of this film feels like a mid-1930’s Warners aviation drama, with Ben Affleck in the James Cagney role and Josh Hartnett in the Pat O’Brien role. Some of that was deliberate — director Michael Bay said he was trying for a 1940’s feel to the romance (which explains why the movie’s depiction of love and sex is surprisingly decorous for a 20th-century film; McCauley and Evelyn never make it to bed together before McCauley’s “death” — maybe we’re supposed to think that the real reason he’s so pissed at Walker is because Walker popped her cherry — and Walker and Evelyn’s first love scene is a charmingly staged one in which the two of them are standing up and enveloped in the folds of parachutes being packed for flight crews) — but there’s also a ponderousness with which the old clichés are trundled out that makes a good deal of the first hour and a half of this film rather dull but also gives it a quirkily dorky appeal.
At least this film makes sense, which hasn’t always been the case with Michael Bay’s work (you’ll recall that he wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times responding to people who had said his film Armageddon was incoherent, and the gist of his letter was that young people not only don’t care about but actively dislike plot continuity and they were the audience for which he had made the film), and the action scenes really are spectacular. What’s more, the film does a very good job of depicting the sheer disorientation felt even by people who were supposedly preparing for war when they are in fact attacked — and if Bay and cinematographer John Schwartzman hadn’t shot them through distortion that makes them look like they smeared Vaseline on the lenses, the scenes in the service hospital with the nurses scrambling to save as many of the attack victims as they can and having to improvise a triage system on the fly would have had a similar power.
The production of Pearl Harbor we were watching was a two-DVD edition whose first DVD abruptly ended with the calling-off of the planned third wave of the Japanese attack and the line about how Admiral Yamamoto, who had proposed and commanded the attack, supposedly said when it was over, “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant” — a line invented by the screenwriters of Tora! Tora! Tora! that has become part of the legend of the actual battle. The remaining 53 minutes of the film (not counting the seemingly endless credit roll — even for a modern film this one listed a lot of effects people, stunt people, editors, sound editors, technicians, computer people and others whose job titles sometimes barely hint to us non-movie professionals exactly what they did on this film) details the story behind the Doolittle raid on Tokyo in April 1942, which was an attempt to strike a psychological blow against Japan to make up for the one they’d struck against us by attacking Pearl Harbor.
When Pearl Harbor came out, the New Yorker reviewer had a lot of fun imagining just how this sequence got in the movie — at a story conference someone said, “Hey, wait a minute. A movie about Pearl Harbor is going to be a downer. It’s a battle we lost” — and at least in the New Yorker critic’s fantasy, they decided to extend the story to the Doolittle raid so the movie could end on a note of triumph. There’s some more exciting action footage in this part and also some more pachydermous exposition (though Alec Baldwin’s acting as Doolittle is, quite frankly, the finest performance in the film), and the romantic triangle is resolved when Walker is killed in the raid and McCauley agrees to marry Evelyn and raise the child she conceived with Walker (did I mention that Walker got her pregnant? Another old-movie cliché Randall Wallace couldn’t resist!), and there’s a final scene that shows them back on the old homestead in Tennessee, with McCauley still flying his dad’s old red biplane on crop-dusting runs.
Pearl Harbor is a movie that is overwhelming in both the good and bad senses of the term — it’s a well-made piece of entertainment and it offers the spectacular action scenes so many modern moviegoers buy tickets to see, but it also leaves one stuffed and sensorily overloaded — and it’s also not especially well acted; Beckinsale’s whole manner is that of a fine actress who’s all too aware that this role doesn’t even come close to tapping her potential but she’s doing it anyway for the money; Affleck too often stares straight at the camera and tries to let his good looks give his performance for him; and Hartnett is probably the best of the principals but he, too, has been challenged more in other roles (notably the Iago character in O, the intriguing retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello set in a previously all-white prep school in the South that has just admitted its first African-American on a basketball scholarship, which according to his imdb.com filmography he actually made after Pearl Harbor — I’d thought it was earlier); though the subject is the 1940’s and the script draws on clichés from even earlier in cinematic history, the overall sensibility is still that of 2001 and this film proved unexpectedly prescient when the 9/11 attacks occurred four months after its release.