One thing that was clear even before “Pearl Harbor” hit cinemas in the summer of 2001 was that super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay were trying to create a “Titanic” clone. In other words they were planting a love-story into a significant historical event and hoping for equally titanic box-office success. And really, that’s pretty much what they managed. With Bay (“Armageddon”, “Transformers”) at the helm nobody could really claim they were expecting plot or characters of Shakespearean quality, nor would the film strive in that direction anyway. Like the ocean-liner epic, this picture follows the lines of a very old-fashioned love story, extending it to a triangle, with an abundance of sappy exposition which is then replaced at some point with all-out action amongst the film’s awesome production values. However, what James Cameron succeeded in doing and where “Pearl Harbor” ultimately falters and even stumbles is in the creation of characters that cling to the teenage hearts for which they are intended.
Plotwise, it’s pretty simple: Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) grow up in Tennessee as best friends and enlist in the U.S. Air Force bound by their eternal love of flying. During this time, Rafe meets and falls in love with beautiful nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a relationship troubled from the outset by the looming World War II, and he eventually leaves her behind to fight with the British in Europe, and subsequently shot down in a dogfight with German planes. Stricken with grief while posted in Hawaii, Evelyn and Danny get ever closer, eventually realising they’re in love. Suddenly however Rafe turns up, only presumed dead. And at about the same time the Japanese forces in the Pacific carry out their planned attack on the titular navy base.
While it’s all very ambitious and visually impressive, one must question why the love story was inserted in such length when Bay really only wants to get to the action sequences. This is of course an inherent flaw in all his films but it stands to reason that the man had better become a second unit director where he could have all the fun with the action and leave the drama to someone else, like what has been done in many James Bond films. Bay is simply not capable of transmitting to the audience a story or characters we can care about. Instead of fleshing out the roots of Rafe and Danny’s friendship or the back-story of the political intrigue, he chooses to create horrible schmaltz next to the Queen Mary liner (a scene Bay wrote himself) and have Affleck smacked bang in the face with a champagne cork. In a film with a running-time of just under three hours, this would have been a real opportunity with plenty of time left over for multiple love stories and plenty of smooching. What’s presented instead are many plot threads which aren’t knotted together at any place. Take for example Cuba Gooding Jr.’s excellent portrayal of Doris Miller, the first African-American to be presented with the Navy Cross for his actions at Pearl Harbor. In itself it’s a very touching story but one which bears no relationship to the main plot whatsoever. A film about his life would have been so much more interesting.
Another irritating point is the portrayal of the Japanese. Every scene, they feature in is extremely beautiful from a visual perspective yet their function is little more than to say exactly what they’re planning to do for the history-illiterates in the audience. No thought (be it negative or otherwise) is invested in the Japanese ideals of honour or what exactly dying on the battlefield meant for these soldiers and pilots. “Empire of the Sun” managed far more in much simpler ways. Needless to say the film was not well received in Japan even after some changes had been made to the final cut that was screened in the country. Not until Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” five years later could western audiences really explore these values. Naturally “Pearl Harbor” is being made from an American and Hollywood viewpoint yet some of the scenes in the final third are so patriotic it’s almost embarrassing. Maybe it’s just something I as a European cannot identify with.
There are some good points. As already alluded to, production design and cinematography are top-notch. Additionally Bay manages to build in some powerful moments during the attack, for example the nurses who had never seen a patient up to now are suddenly thrown right into the centre of the carnage or the destruction of the battleships is pretty realistic. Unfortunately scenes like this are few and far between. As for the climax of the story, well this too could have been handled differently. The action clearly climaxes with the “Pearl Harbor” attack. The love-triangle plot could also have been sorted out neatly here. For some reason the screenplay is extremely reluctant to have characters die at this point and so we are launched into a bombing mission that could have filled another film in itself.
Jerry Bruckheimer has always collaborated with Hans Zimmer or his associates and together they have defined a “blockbuster sound” for the nineties and noughties. For “Pearl Harbor” however Zimmer focuses mainly on writing a melodramatic love theme for the story. In the film this only helps to accentuate the schlocky love-story despite not being period-correct but makes for much better listening on the album. Coupled with the Faith Hill end credits song, it’s surprisingly devoid of Zimmerish action material (although there are volumes of it present in the film). A very recommended album for fans of the German composer.
“Pearl Harbour” is ambitious but overlong, a typical brainless blockbuster that tries to be more and with a bit of effort could have been so much better. In rating the film it’s easy to pass over all it’s redeeming features. I have tried to avoid that but know that it wins one full star for the visuals alone. As expected “Pearl Harbor” became the blockbuster it was meant to be, almost quadrupling it’s $140 million budget but quite frankly, if it’s tales of troubled love in war you seek, you can do a lot better.
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