Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 3:04 - Released 5/25/01

When I first saw the trailer for Pearl Harbor, with its impressive effects and beautiful cinematography, I thought, wow — maybe this is Speilberg's summer release for 2001. Then I saw: "Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer." Oops. Bruckheimer, who is known for producing fast, action-packed movies that are, to put it politely, credibility-challenged, has put together a colorful, flashy, 3-hour epic recounting the 1941 Japanese attack on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. But, in keeping with his personal tradition, he has assembled an immature, sophomoric creative team (including director Michael Bay, who helmed the abysmally stupid, Bruckheimer-produced 1998 blockbuster Armageddon, and writer Randall Wallace, the man behind The Man In The Iron Mask), who have done their best to drain any historical relevancy from the incredibly powerful true story, packing it full of insipid dialogue, unlikely details, and a shallow love triangle that arrogantly hogs most of the screen time. This could have easily been a two-hour film if the producers had excised all the schlock, and it probably would have had much more impact as a history lesson. But there it is.

The three principal actors in this film are Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, and Kate Beckinsale, who engage in a wholly unlikely love affair the type of which is common in modern movies, but probably would have never happened in 1941. Ben and Josh play lifelong friends and flyboys Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker, who meet Army nurse Evelyn Johnson (Beckinsale) while being assigned to their stations. When action-hungry Rafe volunteers to serve in the British Royal Air Force, his girlfriend Evelyn and her fellow nurses (who all apparently just want to get laid) are sent to the beautiful Hawaiian base at Pearl Harbor, which is described as "about as far away from the action as you can get," along with Danny, who promises Rafe he'll take care of Evelyn. When Rafe is shot down and presumed dead, Danny and Evelyn are so torn up they sleep together.

Finally, and almost with a breath of relief, we get to the film's centerpiece in which just about everything and everyone gets blown to smithereens, during which time Evelyn, Danny, and the recently returned Rafe are too busy being heroic to worry about their little problems. Interspersed between scenes of their story are segments involving the Japanese planning and executing their attack (featuring Mako as Adm. Yamamoto), and Washington, D.C., sequences in which FDR is played scene-chewingly by Jon Voight. Also present is Cuba Gooding Jr. as real-life cook's mate Dorie Miller, who, although untrained in gunnery, manned a 50-calibre antiaircraft gun aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia and shot down at least 1 Japanese plane. After this second act, we are treated to more heroics involving Rafe and Danny (and an appallingly puffed-up Alec Baldwin, operating in melodramatic overdrive), more sappy love affair material, and more friendship-testing situations.

Don't misunderstand: the attack scenes are some of the most gripping I have ever seen; the action is spectacular and John Schwartzman's cinema memorable. Although the carnage is sanitized in order to maintain the PG-13 rating (thousands were shot, burned, drowned, or blown up in the attack, but we hardly ever see any real suffering or death in the film), this portion — the attack itself — could be considered an adequate history lesson. But Bay, Wallace, and Bruckheimer have failed to achieve a setting that feels authentic, apart from gathering the costumes and set pieces of the period. The film looks like 1941, but the actors have not been informed that people behaved differently 60 years ago than they do now. It's as if a group of modern-day twentysomethings have been dressed up in WWII period clothes and plunked down in the middle of a WWII set, but are still acting, talking, and gesturing like they do in 2001. Wallace's script has the same problem. Anachronisms abound in the text.

As Pearl Harbor kicks off the summer season of 2001, I have no doubt that it will make its bazillion dollars and become one of the year's most seen films. I have no delusions that my humble comments will deter many people from seeing it, nor do I desire to do so. This is one of those pivotal moments in American history that deserves to be told, and should be known by everyone. It's just a bit unfortunate that such an incredible, noble story, one which turned a nation around and galvanized a generation into action, should be told by such weak storytellers. The real story of Pearl Harbor deserves better treatment than this. ***½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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