Director Michael Bay has a real flair for the dramatic. And the over-dramatic, and the way over the top, blow your mind melodramatic. In fact, he has such a flair for the dramatic, that every scene in his latest epic Pearl Harbor becomes a theatrical showpiece, a perfectly composed aria of color, sound and emotion that will send you soaring to untold heights or plummeting to the darkest depths. Every scene in the movie becomes almost a stand-alone work of art. And I mean every single scene.
Bay comes from a commercial art background, and it's easy to see the influence. In his work, the attention to visual detail, the package, as it were, is most important. He has certainly got that down. Pearl Harbor has been the subject of much discussion over the past few months, and is anticipated to make a ton of money. The trailers have touted it as a kind of Private Ryan Saves The Titanic, and people are responding. Ticket sales for the first showings began weeks ago. However, critics have had some real concerns about giving over the responsibility of telling the tale of one of our nation's most emotional moments to Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, who gave us Armageddon, Con Air, and Bad Boys. It's kind of like turning the Charlie Chaplin story over to the Farrely Brothers. I was apprehensive going in; would they pay any attention to detail? Would they try to insert any high speed car chases or meteor attacks? Would Jon Voight look completely ridiculous as FDR? I guess my basic fear was: are Bruckheimer and Bay going to make Pearl Harbor as a Bruckheimer and Bay movie?
But truthfully, why shouldn't they? Their movies do spectacularly at the box office. People, myself included, really like that stuff, even though much of it is basically mindless. The problem comes in tackling subject matter so revered, so sacred, that you are liable to alienate the very people you are catering to. With Pearl Harbor, they've come up with a kind of hybrid that they hope will satisfy all comers. The first forty-five minutes or so are typical set-up, and contain most of the romance elements. Unfortunately, Bay doesn't seem to understand the words subtle or understated, and you'll find yourself rolling your eyes and suppressing a guffaw at every ill-conceived line and every deep soulful gaze from the lovers. "I will love you for all of my days. All I've ever wanted is for the two of us to build a life together!" Sure, lovers talk like this, but not with every word. Once the fighting starts, however, everything turns around. The battle scenes are truly incredible. Instead of typical dog-fight footage where all you get is a blur of propellers and an occasional puff of smoke, Bay puts you in the cockpit, dodging bullets and debris from the destroyed plane ahead. The shots of the attack on Battleship Row and the airfields are heartrending. The enormity of what happened to our fleet, on our soil, is hammered home. The battle lasts nearly an hour and is so amazing that I would go see the movie again, even if the other two hours were completely worthless. The rest of the film can't come close to measuring up, but it's not worthless.
Ben Affleck and Josh Harnett do a passable job as best friends and ace pilots, although Affleck's attempt to do dumb-country hick comes off occasionally as dumb-Boston actor. Kate Beckinsale also does a merely passable job as the heroine, and it's too bad. In Bruckheimer's previous outings, the action was the star, so the acting didn't really matter, but here it should have been of equal importance. If he wants us to care about the people, he needs to make us believe them. There is a cavalcade of smaller roles filled by big name stars that stretch from the wonderful (Cuba Gooding Jr.) to the painful (Alec Baldwin as Capt. Jimmy Doolittle). Cuba's acting is the best of the movie, and it's a shame that he's given such short shrift. His character is based on a real person, the first African American to win the Navy Cross, and I would have loved to see more of him, and less of Affleck cooing at Beckinsale. Jon Voight, unfortunately, gets buried under a huge FDR head and fails to give the role the gravity it needs.
(left to right) Sandra (Jennifer Garner), Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) Betty (James King (III)) and Barbara (Catherine Kellner) in Touchstone Pictures' Pearl Harbor - 2001
There has been a lot of discussion about how Japanese people will respond to this film. In response to this, Disney, who is distributing the film and has a large interest in Japan due to a planned Tokyo-DisneyLand, have sprinkled in scenes showing Japanese preparation and training. These scenes are meant to show us the nobility of the Japanese, and the desperateness of their situation, as the U.S. had apparently cut off the oil supply. This is fair, I guess, and I salute the effort to show both sides, but the Japanese characters remain little more than stereotypes as all their lines are nothing more than platitudes and sound-bites. The filmmakers don't bother to name the generals responsible for the attack, and can't even let them revel in their one victory. The last line of the Japanese commander is, "I fear that all we've done is awaken a slumbering giant." I fear that that line is there only to placate Americans who can't stand to see America on the losing end of a battle. Much of the historical detail of the battle gets glossed over in the pursuit of a good looking, good sounding movie. That is one difference between this film and Titanic. This movie doesn't feel exhaustively researched. In the end, though, I don't guess that's such a bad thing, because the movie doesn't necessarily feel like a cheap exploitation, either. Overly melodramatic or not, Pearl Harbor is a direct hit. Grade: B+
Pearl Harbor is rated PG-13 for violence and mild language.
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