2001, PG-13, 183 min. Directed by Michael Bay. Starring Cuba Gooding Jr, Jon Voight, Alec Baldwin, Ewen Bremner, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett, Ben Affleck.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 25, 2001
Is it wrong for me to love the catastrophe ballets of Michael Bay? I feel so dirty coming home to my A Bout de Souffle and Tsui Hark one-sheets -- and I suspect I'm not the only film critic out there who wonders why Bay's adrenalized hotdogging so gets to us. But there it is, obvious and irreduceable, a hitch in my chest, as the computer-generated image of the USS Arizona lists slowly to port while Japanese Zeroes strafe the terrified sailors diving from the quarterdeck. The fetishism of explosions is a powerful thing, as most moviegoers already know; certainly Bay knows it. There's nothing like a bang-up action movie to release some tension, though, and although this new film comes swathed in patriotic reminiscences and enough red, white, and blue to re-flag both the U.S. and France, the core of the picture is the riveting, virtuoso battle sequences. Pearl Harbor, a crowd-pleasing blockbuster if ever there was one, features as its centerpiece a jaw-droppingly vivid re-creation of the Japanese attack on the U.S.'s fabled (and extremely vulnerable, as it turned out) Pacific fleet, as well as a sequence set in the pockmarked skies above Dover's white cliffs and a final, flak-strewn showdown over Tokyo. The film's PG-13 rating disallows the caliber of realism Saving Private Ryan set the standard for, but Bay, mindful to get (most) of the facts right, does include a disturbing, dreamlike sequence set in the base's hospital, where frantic, shell-shocked nurses and doctors use empty Coca-Cola bottles to hold the freshly donated blood; everything else is gone or shattered and everyone else is horribly burned, dying, or dead. Whatever else you might say about Pearl Harbor, the film drives home the point that December 7, 1941, was a terrible day not only for the servicemen and women directly involved, but also for the nation as a whole. Loss of innocence and that sort of thing. The rest of the film -- and at three hours, there's a lot of it -- is but a pale, if strenuous, attempt to flesh out the momentous events of history within the confines of a love triangle, among best buddies-cum-Army flyboys Rafe (Affleck) and Danny (Hartnett) and comely base nurse Evelyn (Beckinsale). Pearl Harbor appears to be targeting exactly the same demographic (teen, female) with its love story that Titanic did so well with a few years back. Unfortunately, James Cameron's soggy romance ranks right up there with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg when compared to the sparkless, vapid dynamics going on among these three romantic misfires. When Beckinsale's nurse admits early on that she fell for Affleck's lantern-jawed hero partly because “he had such a cute butt,” it's a cringe-worthy line to top any other. The horrors of warfare are nothing compared to the lackluster, formulaic, and unwittingly silly dialogue on display throughout the film. Jon Voight does a passable turn as President Roosevelt (He talks! He walks!), and Cuba Gooding Jr. appears, briefly, as real-life USS West Virginia Ship's Cook 3rd Class (and Waco native) Doris “Dorie” Miller, who took up the Virginia's forward machine gun post after the original gunner had fallen, an action for which he later was awarded the Navy Cross. It's impossible to fault Bay's mastery of action, and Pearl Harbor surely delivers the goods on that count, repeatedly. That only leaves the two other hours to endure. Arrive late, leave early, go home satisfied.