Release: 2001, Buena Vista Starring: Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett, Cuba Gooding Jr, Jon Voight, Alec Baldwin, Mako, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa Director: Michael Bay MPAA Rating: [PG-13] violence, language, sexuality Genre: Action/Drama
It was the end of innocence, and the dawn of a nation's greatest glory...
One part killer action flick and one part lame love story equals one giant disappointment. Pearl Harbor, which began its advertising campaign over a year ago, has been one of the most anticipated movies of 2001. And I'm sorry to say that my greatest fears about this film have been confirmed: yes, the action is very impressive, but a weak leading cast drops the ball on a story that is already bad to begin with.
I'll exalt the victories first. The action element rocks--what else would you expect from director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer? This dynamic duo that brought us The Rock and Armageddon really know their stuff when it comes to blowing things up. They're experts at filming destruction from interesting angles and staging utter chaos. So when they bring us the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent retaliation of the Americans, the action is blazing and furious. They're also skilled at inspiring that certain cinematic patriotism mixed with tension.
Salvaging many of the scenes is a solid supporting cast. Cuba Gooding Jr. is one of the only characters who comes across as even the least bit sympathetic as "the brother who's gettin' put down by the Man, a.k.a. Whitey." Jon Voight, who doesn't drive a LeBaron, turns in a great portrayal of President Roosevelt as he delivers doctored Hollywood speeches pieced together from historical soapboxing--they may not be 100% accurate, but dammit, they make you proud to be an American. Alec Baldwin also waves the red, white, and blue as a Colonel who stirs up the troops and strikes back at Japan. And finally, the Japanese officials score points for the movie for having some depth. Instead of being the stereotypical faceless foreign enemy, they are depicted as intelligent individuals with a purpose.
Sabotaging these efforts is a wickedly awful love story played out by three lead actors who have no chemistry between them. The whole situation is filled with so many soap opera theatrics that you may spend the whole movie waiting for the arrival of the evil twin or the revelation that FDR is Ben Affleck's father. The story, encapsulated, goes a little something like this: Rafe McCawley (Affleck) and Danny Walker (Hartnett) are old childhood friends who dream of flying planes. As young adults, they join the U.S. Army Air Corps, where Rafe instantly falls in love with a nurse named Evelyn (Beckinsale). Later, when Rafe's plane goes down and he is left for dead, Danny and Evelyn hook up--only to later learn that Rafe is not truly dead!
So what do you do when two guys are in love with the same woman? Well, according to the Lara Flynn Boyle movie Threesome, you all get in the sack together and the girl plays the part of Fingercuffs. But according to Pearl Harbor (and the generally accepted rules of sappy romantic dramas), you skip that step and go right to the jealousy between the parties involved.
Now, I know what you're thinking--RAFE?. Yes, apparently Michael, William, and Rafe were popular choices among pre-World War 2 parents. More disturbing than this Dawson-esque selection of moniker, though, is the continuation of an Affleck casting trend. When he is teamed up with other guys, especially in a supporting role, he strikes gold: Boiler Room with Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, and other dudes, and Good Will Hunting and Dogma with buddy Matt Damon. But when you make him the leading man opposite a chick, you get stuff like Bounce with Gwyneth Paltrow, Reindeer Games with Charlize Theron, Chasing Amy (the weakest film of the Kevin Smith pantheon) with Joey Lauren Adams, and the worst scenes in Armageddon with Liv Tyler. There's something that just doesn't click when Affleck gets hooked up with the honies on screen. Pearl Harbor is no different, and so my Ben Affleck theory lives on...
The relationship between Affleck and Beckinsale is flimsy at best, and when he is presumed dead, no one really cares. Such indifference is a testament to the weak characters leading this story. Rafe and Danny are so boring, in fact, that you get the impression Evelyn should just flip a coin and be done with the whole thing. And what's up with Hartnett's pensive look throughout the film? He always looks like he's on the verge of crying, even in the middle of an aerial dogfight. And speaking of the airborne action, I'd really like to hear from the WWII vets out there about the authenticity of the planes. Rafe and Danny fly these things like X-Wing fighters from Star Wars. And was it my imagination, or did I hear Alec Guinness' disembodied voice suggest, "Use the force, Rafe"?
There have been many comparisons between Pearl Harbor and Titanic. Indeed, the two films share many similarities on the surface: they are both historical dramas that have tragic outcomes that are already known, and they both use romantic relationships to ground the story and give perspective to the audience. But Titanic remembered at least one thing that Pearl Harbor forgot--to coerce the audience into giving a damn about the people in the middle of all the chaos.
Now I'm not saying the James Cameron ship-sinking blockbuster was the most original thing to hit the fan, but it was far more adept at emotionally manipulating its audience when it came to the tearjerkers. DiCaprio and Winslet made a decent enough pairing that many people related to. But Affleck and Hartnett fighting over Beckinsale? They never transcend the image of a couple of flyboys brawling over a trophy girlfriend, and the lack of substance is glaring. It might not be so bad, but they dedicated the better half of the movie to this bizarre love triangle--and when you're talking an overly long runtime exceeding three hours, that ends up being a lot of wasted time.
Pearl Harbor is too long, too hollow, and too paint-by-numbers. For me, the action sequences were fully enthralling, but the romance scenes were intolerable. The result is a half and half movie that overstays its welcome. Everyone's best bet is to wait for the DVD, then program your player to only play the tracks that fit your taste. Until then, you're stuck with a three hour beast that ends up being rather disappointing, especially in light of all the anticipation.
Rating: 5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)