Bombing Pearl

‘Pearl Harbor’ makes a splendid air-conditioned fireworks display

BOMBS AWAY! Hollywood hunks run for cover during the money shot of the latest summer blockbuster attempt.

BOMBS AWAY! Hollywood hunks run for cover during the money shot of the latest summer blockbuster attempt.

i>Pearl Harbor
Starring Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett, and Alec Baldwin. Directed by Michael Bay.
Rated 2.0

OK, so you make a movie about the World War II attack on Pearl Harbor, and you release it on Memorial Day weekend. Is that patriotism? Or is it just a great way to maximize profits while we’re “remembering” the honored dead? (Or, some of us might ask, are patriotism and profiteering pretty much the same thing these days?)

Politically minded moviegoers and moralists might want to pursue some of those questions further, but there’s no denying that Pearl Harbor, the three-hour Jerry Bruckheimer production, is a nifty follow-up to any visit to the cemetery you might have made. Wave the flag, shed a tear, and then settle in for a splendid fireworks show in air-conditioned comfort.

Sure, the thing has a happy-sad love story (the old romantic triangle rises from the grave!), and it gives us a larger-than-life diorama of one of the Primal Scenes of modern American history. But the love story and the historical sound bites are just foreplay for the flash-and-boom of the actual air raid. Indeed, the first hour is so doggedly silly, dull, formulaic and shameless, that the Japanese attack on Pearl comes as a gloriously welcome relief.

Kiss, kiss, boom, boom—it’s one of the oldest Hollywood formulas around, and the specific plot, two fighter pilots in love with the same woman, was already a shopworn cliché back in 1927, when William Wellman’s Wings used it to win the first Oscar for Best Feature Film. But that too is all right as far as the movie’s concerned—like maybe dragging out old romantic war fantasies is itself a kind of patriotism, and marketable too.

The credits tell us that the film was written by Randall Wallace, but “engineered” might be the more accurate term. This is a screenplay that deals in sound bites rather than dialogue and credible character talk, and director Bay treats its paint-by-numbers mixture of historical solemnities and obligatory comic relief in a way that looks like campy spoof at times but never comes close to drawing satirical blood.

Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale are all perfectly charming in the lead roles, and their performances are the sort of thing that would work equally well in commercials for deodorants, expensive jewelry, and K-Tel albums of World War II nostalgia. Each of them deserves better, but this is a movie in which some good supporting actors (Jon Voight as President Roosevelt, Alec Baldwin as Jimmy Doolittle, Cuba Gooding Jr. as a Navy cook, Dan Aykroyd as a War Department strategist) tread a blurry line between heroic portraiture and parodic caricature.

Historical purists will note some anachronistic flubs in the period details, and there’s something very weird in the spectacle of Voight’s FDR putting reverse spin on Dr. Strangelove’s final scene in the classic Stanley Kubrick satire of the same name. But the digitalized aerial-combat stuff, while awesomely designed, is spectacular but too often weightless and artificial.

It’s Top Gun Saves Private Ryan from the Titanic, and if it didn’t have so much boom-and-flash fun recreating the destruction of Pearl Harbor, it might have sunk without a trace.