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Timed to Memorial Day in 2001, Michael Bay unleashed a historical epic aimed to conquer the box office. Pearl Harbor, starring Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale, debuted to negative reviews but topped the holiday weekend chart, eventually raking in nearly $450 million worldwide. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
Theater owners, start your popcorn machines. Despite a filmmaking sensibility that will deeply divide audiences — and inflame more than a few critics — Disney’s Pearl Harbor nonetheless has the spectacle and subject matter to pull in general audiences for weeks. Stiff competition later in its run, however, will keep it from making a run for the record books.
The $135 million production’s unseasonable three-hour running time includes many details of the Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack by the Japanese navy against U.S. forces in Hawaii that were missing in the last super-production on the subject, Fox’s Tora! Tora! Tora!, released in 1970. Alas, both films are crippled by lengthy, attention-wandering lead-ins to the attack, but there the similarities end.
As directed by Michael Bay and written by Randall Wallace, Pearl Harbor strives to weave a story of personal dimensions into large historic events but mostly tests one’s patience with unseaworthy dialogue and performers drowning in oily cliches. Ben Affleck as an American pilot who can’t wait to be a hero and Kate Beckinsale as a Navy nurse who falls for him are always photographed for maximum iconographic value, and it gets to be wearying.
Their looks — her beguiling hairdo, his cocked hat — are all too cheerfully relied on when the dialogue that should draw one in just isn’t there. This facileness continues, much to the film’s cumulative downside, with the interludes with such historical figures as President Roosevelt (Jon Voight) and Adm. Yamamoto (Mako), the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack. The background of Japan’s aggressions in Asia, America’s reluctance to join the war in Europe and Roosevelt’s reactions to unfolding events are breezed through with as much ham-fisted efficiency as the torpedo bombers that killed so many sailors on Battleship Row. The famous lines are there about “waking a sleeping giant” and “day of infamy,” but then liberties are taken frequently to awkwardly interject information, even with such sacrosanct material as Roosevelt’s speech to Congress on Dec. 8, 1941.
Quite dramatic but rushed through like everything in the movie, the initial hour is centered on the courtship of Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), who meet in 1940. A brash flier whose boyhood friend Danny (Josh Hartnett) is assigned with him in an outfit run by the legendary aviator James H. Doolittle (Alec Baldwin), Rafe takes the idealistic step of volunteering for service with the British Royal Air Force in the heated period before isolationist America entered the war.
The opening scenes, set during the 1920s, set up the relationship of Rafe and Danny when the former stands up to his friend’s World War I-traumatized father. Rafe’s protecting of Danny is a recurring event. But when Danny and Evelyn drift together after Rafe is shot down and presumed dead, a future conflict is born. Both male characters are partly based on real-life pilots Kenneth Taylor and George Welch, who shot down seven Japanese planes during the Pearl Harbor attack.
Neither Taylor nor Welch participated in the Doolittle Raid on April 18, 1942, which climaxes Pearl Harbor after Rafe unexpectedly returns from the dead and the infamous surprise attack devastates the Pacific Fleet. There was no McCawley or Walker among the 80 Toyko raiders either, but off they go to fly stripped-down B-25s on a possible suicide mission after an invitation from Doolittle. An attempt to both resolve the two flyboys’ rivalry over Evelyn and show America’s first significant blow in retaliation, Pearl Harbor soldiers on with its themes of sacrifice and heroism, reaching a climax in occupied China where the raiders crash-land and shoot it out with Japanese soldiers.
In a disappointing stab at re-creating the camaraderie and character conflicts of war films, a fair amount of screen time is devoted to groups of guys and, in the case of Evelyn, nurses. Few of these supporting players rise through the storytelling onslaught and attain a level of authenticity. Exceptions include Tom Sizemore as an airfield mechanic who helps Rafe and Danny get aloft during the attack. Another fairly prominent couple are Billy (William Lee Scott) and Betty (James King), one of the nurses caught in a terrifying strafing attack (one of the movie’s best sequences).
Cuba Gooding Jr. as the medal-winning mess assistant Doris “Dorie” Miller on the USS West Virginia fares like most of the others. After an introduction scene showing him boxing and eventually whipping a big ugly sailor, Miller is doctored by Evelyn, and the shorthand dialogue is an example of the characters almost having foreknowledge of their destinies. Colm Feore as Pearl Harbor’s wary Adm. Kimmel and Dan Aykroyd’s Capt. Thurman (based on the real-life Capt. Francis Low), an intelligence officer who comes up with the Doolittle Raid idea, likewise have the gleam of history in their eyes.
When it comes, about 83 minutes into the movie, the 35-minute Pearl Harbor air raid re-creation is unquestionably impressive filmmaking and will be luring viewers to the movie for a long time to come. Blowing up real ships, using real planes and melding in Industrial Light & Magic-produced enhancements — as well as massive sets like the hull of the capsized USS Oklahoma — the devastation is epic, and the flying sequences are an airplane buff’s dream, but often the frantic pacing robs the viewer of closure on certain events.
Meanwhile, though the toll on the unprepared Americans was staggering, the filmmakers shy away from blood and gore. One partly successful sequence, where Evelyn is faced with deciding which of the wounded to admit into the overwhelmed hospital, is needlessly punched up with blurry visuals to accentuate the chaos and soften the horror.
While overall the film is a stirring tribute to the heroes and victims of the Pearl Harbor attack, there are many puzzling lapses in the striving for historical accuracy. Most egregious are many of the details regarding the Doolittle Raid, particularly the seeming clumping of all the planes in one strike and not even mentioning the other Japanese cities that were also bombed. The frantic launch of the B-25s off the pitching flight deck of the USS Hornet, much more compellingly shown in the 1944 classic Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, is a major missed opportunity.
From such aggravating moments as not holding a shot of the exploding USS Arizona long enough to much bigger problems like Hans Zimmer’s relentless blitzkrieg of forgettable music, Pearl Harbor thunders and bubbles with a distinctly contemporary approach to a subject that would scare away even the greatest of filmmakers. Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer are an army of two, and rather than uniting the audience in an experience never to be forgotten, they have pulled a sneak attack on history that everyone will see.
But few will be fooled into believing this is the way it was. — David Hunter
Read more THR archive reviews here. Twitter: @THRArchives