Michael Bay tries to please everyone in a film with everything, resulting in a three-hour film in six acts. Actually, it’s two three-act films spliced together, but you’ll have to sit through the second half to see how the first half should have ended. Oh, and Pearl Harbor gets attacked… you knew that, right?
The year is 1940. Ben Affleck plays Rafe McCawley, a young man who’ll stop at nothing to prove himself as a pilot. His best friend is Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), and Rafe has watched over Danny since they were kids, even enlisting together. Rafe meets a lovely Navy nurse named Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), falling deeply in love with her, but still volunteers when an opportunity to dogfight overseas comes to pass. Meanwhile, Naval Intelligence cryptologist Captain Thurman (Dan Aykroyd) has a hunch about why two Japanese carrier groups have suddenly vanished from the Pacific Ocean… and that Pearl Harbor may be their secret target.
Yep… that’s about as much plot as the film goes into. Taking a que from Titanic, the ‘story’ has little to do with the fact that it just happens to take place on the site of an impending disaster. In fact, Titanic at least took place ON the “Titanic,” whereas much of Pearl Harbor really doesn’t. In typical Hollywood tradition, the love story herein is supposed to seem all the more important somehow because of the circumstances under which it happens (Casablanca, anyone?) but in context, none of the characters seem affected or changed as a result, voiding the entire destruction of Pearl Harbor in a film bearing the same title except as a great reason for $100 million worth of special effects.
The first half is a story unto itself: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, cliché, cliché, cliché. Then, just before some kind of resolution, everyone is in the wrong place at the wrong time. The second half begins when Pearl Harbor is attacked and our ‘heroes’ do whatever they can; this is quite possibly the most incredible and glorified footage of any war campaign filmed to date (sorry, Steven Spielberg.) Unfortunately, then there has to be training to retaliate for the attack, which feels as tacked on as it looks, followed by an even duller strike against Japan that looks pitiful compared to the previous Pearl Harbor attack. Of all the cast, only Alec Baldwin (as Doolittle) shines as a man driven to do anything and FEEL anything about the Japanese sneak attack; Baldwin is finally ready again to do some better stuff and takes this small opportunity by the horns to prove it.
The love story shared by Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale not only feels like Affleck and Liv Tyler from “Armageddon” but inexplicably even looks the same. Every other performance (minus that turned in by Alec Baldwin) is either too brief or too contrived to be of much interest. The true crime Pearl Harbor commits is sensationalizing real events for a meaningless film, then coasting on a huge budget and advertising to lure in moviegoers thinking they’ll see historic accuracy and drama. Too bad they’ll be looking at their watches wondering what else they could have been doing Memorial Day weekend long before that third hour is gone.
Perhaps the writers thought it would be too contrived to end the film immediately after the attack on Pearl, but dragging out the inevitable ending is far more insulting by making us sit through another hour to see exactly the same thing. Here’s a suggestion: show up ninety minutes late for this feature during a matinee, stay for the thirty-minute attack in all its special-effects splendor, grieve a moment for those that REALLY lost their lives back then, then go home before you, too, become a casualty of Pearl Harbor.
One skull recommendation out of four
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Originally posted on Sat, May 26, 2001