Sunday 2 November 2014

Movie Review: Pearl Harbor (2001)

A romantic love triangle set before, during and after the Japanese attack, Pearl Harbor features a sensational 40 minute recreation of the raid, but is otherwise weighed down by clunky writing and listless performances.

Tennessee boyhood friends and lifelong aspiring pilots Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) enlist together and join the air command of Major Doolittle (Alec Baldwin). During the recruitment process Rafe meets and falls in love with nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale). With the United States not yet involved in World War Two, Rafe is granted a transfer to the Eagle Squadron of American pilots fighting in the Battle Of Britain, while Danny and Evelyn are stationed at Pearl Harbor.

Rafe proves himself to be an ace pilot, but his plane is lost during a dogfight and he is assumed killed in action. Gradually the grieving Danny and Evelyn get close, and after a few months they fall in love. In the meantime, the imperialistic Japanese government is negotiating peace with the United States while secretly plotting a devastating blow to the US Pacific fleet. Rafe, who had survived his crash and was sheltered by the resistance in France, returns to Pearl Harbor only to find his best buddy and girlfriend now in a full-fledged relationship, on the eve of the audacious Japanese attack.

With Titanic proving that famous real-life disasters can be recast as grand fictional romances and achieve great box office success, Pearl Harbor uses history as rough background for a three-hour romance. Pearl Harbor aims more for the dreamy universe of From Here To Eternity than the technical reality of Tora! Tora! Tora!. It's a reasonable effort, eschewing historical accuracy for fictional characters caught in the crosshairs of extraordinary events.

But when the emphasis is supposed to be on tenderness and people rather than action and machines, Michael Bay is likely the most wrong director to be at the helm. Bay is much more comfortable with exploding hardware than exploring human emotions. The romance elements never add up to any level of convicing passion, with neither the Randall Wallace script nor Bay's directing able to create memorable moments or sufficient chemistry between the three leads.

The casting choices don't help. Affleck carries a smugness that helps him in the cockpit but oozes insincerity in the romantic scenes, while the stiff Josh Hartnett labours mightily but to no effect trying to prove that he can actually act. Kate Beckinsale is the best of the three and could have smoldered, but she never finds the required masculine reciprocity from neither Affleck nor Hartnett to catch fire.

Wallace also packs in too much into the story. Before the attack on Pearl Harbor there is a side trip with Rafe to the Battle Of Britain, and after the attack Rafe and Danny participate in the training and execution of the Doolittle raid. Compared to the elaborate treatment of the central attack, the other two military sub-stories are rushed, underdeveloped and ultimately unnecessary.

Despite the mammoth running length, none of the supporting cast are given enough to do, and the likes of Jon Voight (President Roosevelt), Baldwin (Doolittle), Sizemore (as a soldier stationed at a small airfield who helps rustle up a modicum of resistance during the attack) and Gooding Jr. (as real-life hero Petty Officer Miller) are reduced to symbolic snippets. The Japanese commanders planning the attack never progress beyond grim faced men spouting stock lines.

This leaves the film with its centrepiece to celebrate, and its a masterpiece of battlefield recreation. Bay comes into his own, filling the sky with Japanese Zeros, the ground with thundering explosions and blazing fires, and the sea with large battleships being pummeled and with drowning, desperate men. It's a stunning sequence deserving of full praise, Bay capturing the fury, chaos and brutality of the "date which will live in infamy". Ironically, a film that attempted to emphasize romance at the expense of hardware is almost saved by the thunderous roar of battle fully squashing the intended sweetness of convoluted love.

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