That sinking feeling
With Pearl Harbor, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay step way up in class. No longer satisfied to turn out boorish, bull-in-a-china-shop body-slammers like Armageddon and The Rock, they’ve decided to become epic artists. It’s as if they looked at Schindler’s List, The English Patient and Saving Private Ryan and said, “Hey, man, we can do that.”
It’s kind of touching in a way, like a sumo wrestler wanting to dance Swan Lake. But Pearl Harbor is a bloated, waterlogged catastrophe that looks and feels phony in every detail, from the mossy clichés of Randall Wallace’s script to the gleaming computerized perfection of its curiously bloodless battle scenes. And at just under three hours, it feels longer than World War II itself.
Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett play Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker respectively, two childhood buddies who grow up with a passion for aviation and, in the summer of 1940, wind up in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Rafe goes to England to fly with the R.A.F., leaving his sweetheart, nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), stateside. By the time Rafe is shot down over the English Channel, Evelyn and Danny have been posted to Hawaii—about as far from the fighting (they think) as it’s possible to be. They share their grief at Rafe’s death, they share a drink, then they share a sunset joyride in Danny’s P-40 fighter. Finally, they end up sharing bodily fluids on a pile of parachutes in a hangar at Hickam Field.
Rafe’s not dead, of course (as if they’d kill Ben Affleck 30 minutes into a three-hour movie). When he turns up in Hawaii, it’s a moment that shows the full measure of Michael Bay’s ineptitude. I’d have thought that the handsome-hero-back-from-the-dead was something even a New Guinea headhunter who’d never seen a movie, much less directed one, could hardly botch, but Bay’s camera darts clumsily around—the telegram, Rafe’s reflection, billowing curtains, Evelyn gasping in confusion—until the scene shrivels up like a salted snail.
Two men in love with the same woman—now there’s a novel plot! Especially for a World War II movie, where it’s really poignant because, well, the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
The very next day, the Japanese Empire considerately takes Rafe, Danny and Evelyn’s minds off their troubles. This is, in real time, 80 minutes into the film, and it goes on for 35 minutes. There are lots of explosions, aerial stunts, and bomb’s-eye-views, but the progression of the raid remains a muddle. Luckily, back at the Japanese Task Force, Admiral Yamamoto (Mako) keeps up a running play-by-play, like a color commentator—"We have attained surprise.” “We have destroyed Battleship Row. We will now attack the air fields.”
Pearl Harbor dribbles on for another 55 minutes. Jumbling scenes and playing havoc with the passage of time, Wallace and Bay suggest that President Roosevelt (an unrecognizable Jon Voight), after asking Congress to declare war on December 8, rushed straight home to plan the Doolittle raid. In any case, Rafe and Danny soar into this new adventure with Doolittle himself (Alec Baldwin, the best performance in the film).
Finally, after those 30 seconds over Tokyo, when fate and the fortunes of war have resolved the movie’s romantic triangle, Evelyn chimes in on the soundtrack with a stunningly vapid piece of military analysis, telling us that the Doolittle raid was America’s first major offensive in the Pacific and the turning point of the war with Japan. Take that, you surviving veterans of Guadalcanal and Midway—guess Randall Wallace and Michael Bay know how to put you in your places!
In a movie business where everyone on the set seems to be angling for a producer’s credit, Pearl Harbor must set some sort of record for associate, executive and line producers—fourteen of them! The idea of fourteen people getting together to produce a movie strikes me as akin to 30 people deciding to have a baby. And Pearl Harbor is about what I’d expect from such a chaotic union.