Pearl Harbor Review
The film that was touted as being the biggest blockbuster of 2001 was a veritable Titanic-style production in terms of scale, effects, drama, emotion and, of course, naff love stories wrapped around world-changing real-life events. But Michael Bay's and Jerry Bruckheimer's Pearl Harbor received very little of the acclaim that James Cameron's perennial tear-jerker achieved. Despite good box office and multiple editions, including an extended R-rated cut that you won't find here, folks, Pearl Harbor literally bombed in the critics' eyes. Now on Blu-ray, let's see if we can give the film a reappraisal.
“A brilliant man would find a way not to fight a war.”
Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) are childhood buddies who become exceptional military flyers. When pulling Top Gun style aviation-antics no longer proves to be that thrilling, Rafe volunteers to go and aid the RAF as the Few seem to require a little help keeping the Luftwaffe away from the white cliffs of Dover, whilst Danny and Rafe's girlfriend, nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) are stationed at the picturesque Hawaiian naval base at Pearl Harbor, the home of America's Pacific Fleet. Then when news reaches them that Rafe has been killed in action, fate throws Danny and Evelyn together. But when Rafe miraculously returns, alive and well, all manner of complications ensue, not least the devastating attack of the Imperial Japanese fleet that will, ultimately, bring America roaring into a war they had, so far, only watched from afar. Jeez, when it rains, eh ...?
The middle section, detailing the actual attack is, of course, superb. All those who berate the film with vehemence must still concede to the visceral power that Michael Bay, his stuntmen and his effects creators are able to splash across the screen with their incredible recreation of Pearl Harbor's tragic claim to fame. In fact, there are few filmmakers who can dish out movie-mayhem with the visual dexterity of Michael Bay. With a build-up that gathers a terrible momentum and a growing sense of fatality - Japanese planes winging over the tranquil and beautiful hills and canopy of Hawaii juxtaposed with the normality of life in the peaceful sanctuary of the base, itself - the movie finds its own thudding heartbeat and begins a glorious forty-five (at least) minute sequence of retina and soul-scorching action, chaos and devastation. Panicky naval officers attempting to make sense of a huge signal blip on their radar scopes prickle the skin on the back of your neck. The teasing shots of the Zero squadron flying low past young kids playing on the hills and a baseball pitch of bemused players, their heads turning in fear and wonder at the sight, linger in the mind, haunting vignettes of the calm before the storm. The attack, itself, a wonderwork of pyrotechnic carnage stretched across an incredibly broad canvas. Money-shot follows money-shot as torpedoes slam into the slumbering hulls of battleships, machine-gunfire rips up swabbed decks, white-uniformed sailors and trundling vehicles, as one, with a deadly rain of hot lead that is as entrancing to witness as it is impossible to escape. Bodies are flung to the waters, blown to pieces or left hanging onto rails and cannon-barrels as mighty vessels tip over into the churning briny. The celebrated shot when we cling onto the tailfin of a bomb as it drops from the undercarriage of a plane and falls remorselessly onto the deck of its target and then plunges through the various floors beneath it is the spectacular and terrible, real-world equivalent to Slim Pickens' immortal ride into oblivion from Dr. Strangelove. The scale of destruction is simply immense, easily going beyond the classic bombardment that was so marvellously wrought in the classic Tora!Tora!Tora! and, in this department, Peal Harbor proves a very hard film to beat. Some of the biggest and brightest explosions since the original Big Bang decorate the screen and, no matter, how agonising it all would have been for real, it is one of the best cinematic maelstroms yet produced.
“Not anxious to die, Sir. Just anxious to matter.”
The action back on dry land, with furious attempts to get some American aircraft up into the skies is equally as exciting. Airfields become streams of living flame, wreckage peppers the image and ragtag gaggles of impossibly helpless defenders, small pockets of humanity amid a swirling sea of hell, scuttle about like ants caught beneath the biggest magnifying glass in the world. Tom Sizemore, himself a war-film veteran, with Saving Private Ryan under his belt and Scott's seminal Black Hawk Down to follow soon after his gallant face-off here, stands and blasts his shotgun up into the heavens, fighting back as much at the Gods as at the Japs blotting out the sun. Our heroes make desperate plans to take the fight back to their airborne aggressors and, in what is only a slightly Hollywoodised move (in reality a few more American planes got off the ground to retaliate than Bay shows) Affleck and Hartnett are soon playing chicken with non-savvy Zeros and some meagre, but flag-wavingly cathartic revenge is strewn across the smoke-filled sky. It is thunderous stuff, make no mistake. But it is worth noting that this version is the PG13 release and omits some of the more bloody incidents that were filmed. Though not enough to rob the film of its terrifying impact.
The period evocation is equally adept. Yes, there's an emphasis on the iconic stalwarts of train station meetings and then subsequent partings amid swathes of nostalgic steam. Yes, there's the ubiquitous dance-hall shindig. And, yes of course we get real vintage news footage. Not sure about that lousy voiceover man, though! And the thing is that with all the gloss and high production values that Bay and Bruckheimer lavish on the movie, Pearl Harbor does look absolutely ravishing. The scintillating Hawaiian locations concoct a veritable Eden, making their impending incineration all the more gut-wrenching, and it is pertinent and poignant to note that the real Pearl Harbor was also utilised for the production.
Another strength is the music. In keeping with the Titanic ethos of tragedy/heroism intermingled, the film's score from Hans Zimmer accurately echoes the sweeping, lush romanticism of James Horner at his most heartfelt. Now, although the music he supplies for Pearl Harbor is, indeed, highly reminiscent of Horner's elegiac strings and fate-wrapped idealism for the likes of Titanic, Legends Of The Fall and The Perfect Storm etc, Zimmer still creates a truly awesome piece of work that captures the theme of impending doom, patriotic adventure and emotional chaos with a strength that is both rousing and passionate. The main theme is long, lush and languid, with star-crossed destiny surging through its core. Cues for the Japanese - nice to see Conan The Barbarian's Mako in here, as Admiral Yamamoto, the man behind the cataclysmic masterplan - would later be reworked into Zimmer's score for The Last Samurai. But, as a sucker for swelling, string-led heroic themes, I can only admit that I loved this, admittedly, formulaic score.
“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant ...”
Admiral Yamamoto begins to cry over some spilt milk.
But way beyond all the good - in fact, that should really read necessary - stuff, Pearl Harbor exhibits many of the strangled, spoon-feed traps and pitfalls of any formulaic, appeal-to-the-masses ingredients that normally, and unfortunately, go into the making of such a large-scale, un-artistic blockbuster movie. The lover-triumvirate between Rafe, Evelyn and Danny is certainly trite and only holds appeal for teeny-bopper Romeos and Juliets. The circumstances surrounding and leading to Evelyn moving from one best friend to the other may well be genuine - I can imagine this sort of predicament arising during a World War - but the TV movie-esque depiction of their ramifications can only lead to diversionary sniggers. And early comedic sections revolving around Rafe's attempts to woo Evelyn are woefully ill-conceived. The development of the surrounding groups of friends - Evelyn's fellow nurses, including a bespectacled Jennifer Garner - and the assorted flyboys and groundcrew that hang around our two main heroes - including rodent-faced Ewan Bremner who also fought alongside Josh Hartnett in Black Hawk Down - are really quite disposable and, barring only a couple of brief moments of intense personal agony, don't elicit a great deal of sympathy. The derring-do attitude of these pre-Maverick and Goose pilots feels far too ramped-up. Rafe demanding that somebody gets him to a plane during the main attack is spot-on - and, as it happens, quite authentic - but the overall attitude that these guys have to the grand adventure is too obviously of the knee-jerk and righteous variety. Every expression on their tanned and rock-hewn features is one of nobility and courage, their rage born more out of old world machismo than out of a real thirst for greater-good valour. With the look and verbiage of chino-wearing WWII warriors, Affleck and Hartnett pose and poise with elevated dignity and the obvious weight of real-life veteran expectation on their shoulders. But, as likeable as they both are, neither convince as anything more than core-crowd pleasers whose faces on a poster can - or, at least, could in those days - guarantee a big opening weekend. Their interaction is only effective when they are communicating via cockpit radio, or darting about a bullet-raked tarmac. When real comradeship is called upon, their emotions are simply worn upon their faces, rather than physically crafted. And it is no surprise to find that Kate Beckinsale, with a slightly drifting American accent, is nothing more than a 40's-style glamour-puss, whose selfless act of fashioning a tourniquet out of one of her stockings is put in there just to raise an eyebrow or two during the extended wounded sequence. Actually, these scenes in the beleaguered and half-decimated hospital are another shortcoming. Bay chooses to shoot these intense moments with a distorted lens and a frame that has been softened to avoid lingering on anything too horrific and, supposedly, to lend a hypnotic and nightmare quality to the situation. But, in my opinion, this misses the point and just detracts from the horrors when they should actually have been enhanced to hammer home the full relevance and reality of what really happened that day.
And, then we get the alarmingly lousy screenplay by Randall (Braveheart) Wallace, which is simply terrible. You don't believe me? Just listen to any single line uttered by the equally unconvincing Alec Baldwin as the dogged Air Chief Doolittle. There are moments when he spouts such clichéd nonsense - usually with his eyes cast lovingly in the direction of those proud boys that he trained - that it actually burns your ears to hear it. Adding to this tear-in-the-eye sense of sabre-rattling glory is Bay's insistence upon having as many shots of tanned chins turned skyward as their photogenic owners pine to be up there among the clouds on a wing and a prayer. He even tops this with the stratospherically corny shot of Doolittle's volunteer squadron of do-or-die aviators striding in one determined phalanx and in slow-mo towards the camera. Honestly, it just makes you wince that the cast and crew actually took such a move seriously.
“I can tell you one thing ... they're not American planes ...”
Surprisingly, no matter how many bad points and narrative miscalculations the film makes, I still find it hard to dislike Pearl Harbor. There are plenty of supporting roles that are well essayed, such as Dan Ackroyd's hackles-raised decoder, Cuba Gooding Jnr's machine-gun toting ship's cook (and a real-life hero, to boot), John Voigt's excellent President Roosevelt and even the always reliable William Fichtner (yet another Black Hawk Down veteran) as Danny's hard-bitten, war-dreading father. But the one thing that I truly cannot handle, or even watch for that matter, is the appallingly gung-ho “payback” final act. I can take the risible script and the claustrophobic love triangle and the shallowness of big budget historical rewriting because they are nothing when compared to this simply terrible movie addendum. Unsatisfying, out-of-character and so utterly steeped in formulaic adherence as to suggest that the American teen crowd that this filmic lesson was aimed at would have been too shell-shocked to return home from the cinema without somehow being convinced that the atrocity committed at Pearl Harbor had, in fact, been a huge moral victory for America, after all. The film had a logical ending, but Wallace and Bay just couldn't let go.
Nevertheless, when all said and done, I have to report that Pearl Harbor is still very entertaining. When it isn't being unintentionally hilarious, it is downright ferocious and exciting.