WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: Childhood best friends Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker both grow into ace pilots, but war in Europe separates them and also parts Rafe from Evelyn, the army nurse who is his sweetheart and inspiration. Rafe’s plane is lost in battle and, in comforting Evelyn, Danny finds he can’t resist her, causing the friends to fall out when Rafe miraculously reappears. But their petty squabbles must be put aside when the full extent of the Japanese military’s strategy to attack the USA reveals itself – in horrific fashion.
You can imagine Michael Bay turning this project over in his mind. “Hmm. This ain’t no made up sh*t like Armageddon, you gotta do right by the military. And I don’t know if this here love story sits right neither. Still, them old action hacks Spielberg and Cameron did the history thing okay. Cover it with flags and God and kids and slo-mo walkin’ and violins and sh*t and we’ll have ourselves a mighty purdy picture. Yee-ha!” I’m being unfair to the director (and not in any way suggesting that he actually thinks like this), but Bay’s name attached to a subject as emotive as Pearl Harbor does set a few alarm bells ringing, especially when the film starts not in the fury of battle or at the heart of the action, but with our heroes as boys in a cornfield years before the war; and then proceeds, for a good portion of the film, to treat the conflict as a sideshow (though, to be fair, WWII could accurately be described as such to the US prior to December 1942).
The first half of Pearl Harbor introduces us to the adult Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett), the former a cocksure prodigy who lives to fly, the latter a shy and retiring sort who lives in his friend’s shadow. Rafe convinces pretty nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) to pass him fit despite signs of dyslexia, then convinces her to date him by getting her close to – though not on – the luxurious Queen Mary. The pair fall in love but Rafe’s higher duty is to the army, and he volunteers to go to England to assist the RAF in the hard-fought Battle of Britain despite it not being ‘his war.’
Rafe and Evelyn keep in touch by letter, but communication stops when Rafe’s plane is hit over the English Channel and he is presumed dead. After a respectful period to let her mourn (three months!), Danny plucks up the courage to ask Evelyn out and, after taking her up to see the beautiful aerial view of Pearl Harbor, where they are all now based, the couple make love. But their happiness is abruptly shaken by Rafe’s dramatic return.
There are numerous diversions from this story, showing the Japanese forces planning their attack by sending spies to Hawaii and ringing dentists for weather reports, or introducing minor characters such as Cuba Gooding Jr’s heroic boxer Dorie Miller, or stuttering Ewen Bremner’s pursuit of nurse Betty. Additionally, there are scenes showing the US Military ignoring the intuitive advice of decoding expert Captain Thurman (Dan Aykroyd), and Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jon Voight) fretting over America’s slowness to respond to worldwide crisis. And when McCawley gets to England, there are some excellent aerial sequences which bring dogfights over the British coast to vivid life.
But all of these asides are exactly that, asides, which merely sketch at the world outside the leads’ love triangle (for surely Danny loves Rafe every bit as much as he comes to love Evelyn). The first impressions of the film suggest a jitter-bugging, lindy-hopping romantic comedy, which is not necessarily a bad thing; but the romance is so drawn out, and the characters are so shallow, and say such clunky things under a terribly cloying musical score (‘It’s your nose that hurts.’ ‘I think it’s my heart.’), that you yearn for the war to intervene and cut through the syrup. There is none of the passion that marked Kate and Leo’s relationship in Titanic, nor is there any of the foreboding sense of doom that Cameron’s film managed – in part – to impart.
Naturally, the whole movie changes with the Japanese attack on the US Naval Fleet (“I think World War II’s just started”, Danny shouts. See?). The depiction of this attack is shown from a multitude of viewpoints and is an impressive piece of film-making, showing the Japanese launching their adapted torpedoes to sink ships in the shallow water, Dorie Miller trying to save his captain, and the staff at the previously-deserted hospital (including Evelyn) suddenly becoming overwhelmed with casualties as ship after helpless ship is downed. A small band including Danny and Rafe race to find usable planes to repel the attacks, and they score a few hits, but the carnage is as overwhelming as it is shocking.
I am going to be fair to Bay here and suggest that he wasn’t simply attracted by the idea of making lots of things explode, but by showing the scale of the attack and hundreds upon hundreds of men scrambling for their lives he wanted to move the audience and generate waves of patriotic feeling with the pilots’ fight-back, which then culminates in the daring bomber raid on Japan named Operation Doolittle after the trainer who devises it (Alec Baldwin). It is just a pity that this patriotism is laid on so thickly and so bluntly, with FDR rising out of his chair to demonstrate what can be done with willpower and Doolittle delivering heart-warming homilies to his noble fliers.
And it’s not just historically dodgy; at the climactic point, where the action story meets the love triangle head-on, the film tips over into silliness, with Evelyn, snuck into the Operation control room, reacting (Liv Tyler-style) to news she can’t hear as one of her lovers doesn’t make it back. The acting is fairly uniform (no pun intended); nobody appears out of place – Affleck is nowhere near as annoying here as in Armageddon – but nobody imbues their roles with deeper qualities than are hinted at in Randall Wallace’s pedestrian script, which early on has the young Danny actually telling Rafe “You’re my best friend” – a level of subtlety that is maintained throughout the picture.
You can argue all you like about whether Bay shows any sensitivity towards the dead of Pearl Harbor. What you can say with certainty is that Pearl Harbor the film looks great but for the most part looks at the wrong things, concentrating on a love story that takes far too long to do the incredibly predictable (including Evelyn emerging from the bathroom, looking sick. What could that mean?) to the detriment of explaining the strategy behind the attack and the swiftness of America’s response with clarity, detail and accuracy. A film that did that may not have been a blockbuster, but equally would not have met with the derision and hostility that this movie encountered from many quarters on its release.