Crests and Troughs
Pearl Harbor
Review by Ross Anthony

In blazing contrast to the well-focused attack by the Japanese, "Pearl Harbor" (the movie) takes aim, firing and misfiring at a myriad of targets. Perhaps in hopes of recreating the box office success of "Titanic," Buckenheimer and Bay attempt a 2.5 hour epic mission by juxtaposing a love story and an American tragedy with a war sequence meant to be every bit as respectable as that of "Saving Private Ryan."

Pearl Harbor With so many points to make, I'll start with the most striking - the fantastic attack sequence. This is definitely a target the filmmakers spent months planning and effectively demolished with careful, bold, aggressive execution. Japanese zeroes approaching low enough that you can see the pilots' eyes, filling the skies like dragonflies ripping into the unsuspecting fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii with such surprise that even after the first wave, enlisted men were struggling just to stay alive. On screen, it's an assault so powerful, the audience begins to relive the dread of war. Torpedoes drop from the planes, tearing through the body-laden waters of the pacific, ramming into the hulls of American battleships, then bending and breaking them in massive explosions. Cinematically, large scale success, graphically, horrifically realistic.

This is a scene, like the one in "Saving Private Ryan," that will beckon audiences and no doubt land them in front of the screens. If that's all they care about seeing, audiences won't be disappointed. However, there's a good 2 hours worth of other movie to endure: namely a love story - love triangle, better said - err ah, soapy love triangle even more accurately.

From the outset, in hopes of making the raid scene even more striking, filmmakers begin the film in the most hunkydoriest of manners. Smiling happy, giddy soldiers enlisting; bouncy, ditzy nurses falling in love with them. The first act is so full of 1950's movie cliches that you might just upchuck before the real horror. Though our handsome two heroes are blessed with a short bit of backstory, there's little else we know about them. Based on one incident, we're expected to believe that both love to fly, but that Hartnett for some reason is somehow second best, faulted, the sidekick. Though they hit me over the head with it in exposition more than once, I never believed Hartnett was less a pilot - they both seem equally potent (which accounts for lack of drama later on). Interestingly enough, Affleck's spat of dyslexia made for an juicy little personal quirk, but apparently this is used only as a script ploy toward meeting the leading lady. I liked this trait, why not give it to Hartnett? That would have more substantially pegged him as the underdog. Then play on it later, of course.

That's it, there's little else we know about these two men; but it's Evelyn whose character is drawn completely paper thin. Who is she? Where did she come from? What does she like? Not like? No answer. She's just a pretty face. A cardboard woman with some left over 50's movie nostalgia sprinkled in her hair. Nothing there for audiences to sink their teeth into - and she's half the focus of the movie!

Pearl Harbor Despite scant characters, the high production value and respectable acting talents of Affleck and Beckinsale nearly pull off the initial love story up until the first major complication. (I don't want to spoil that for you.) Which, I didn't buy (but at least one other viewer did). From that point, the love twists meant little to me, while dangerously flirting with the distasteful. Certainly, these are not the Jack and Rose of "Titanic." Nor is their love story integrated into the war story; rather, merely interrupted by it. Lacking also, one James Cameron.

Still, besides the magnificent military action from the jet dog fighting, to the bombing, to the struggle for survival, to a splendidly captured friendly game of air chicken between pilot pals; "Pearl Harbor" hosts a handful of very funny moments. Earlier on a new recruit rubs some juice under his eyes in order to prompt seemingly heartfelt tears with the hope of winning the affections (at least for a night) of an available nurse. Of course, the trick proves more potent than anticipated and the young actor is forced into an involuntary impression of Sean Penn. Alec Baldwin's first scene ends in a crowd pleaser as well. Notable, Affleck's welcome to the British air force ... a crate full of bullet holes and a cracked blood-splattered canopy. "Good Chap," the welcoming officer notes of the plane's last pilot, "He didn't die until he'd landed and shut down the engine."

But each wave crest finds a matching winceable trough. Once mildly funny, the needle-in-the-butt gag gets overplayed, Cuba Jr. stereotyped into a rerun of his "Men of Honor" roll sinks straight to the bottom, a syrupy cliche letter-writing sequence between distanced lovers sticks to the theater floor, cinematographers struggle painfully to make the hospital scenes as stunning as the military clashes, and lastly, each Affleck/Hartnett buddy-buddy heart-to-heart drops hollow on the screen like a dud.

Intermittently cliche in filming, music, character, and dialogue, the film oddly finds a way to answer each indulgent (sometimes laughable) moment of schmaltz with a genuine solid silver edgy moment someplace else in the film.

Brawny, then poofy, love soap, then harsh war recreation - "Pearl Harbor" is one uneven sprawling piece of work. At times cinematically A, then episodically C, creating a grading quandary, I'll resolve by averaging. Still, this is one B film that you'll no doubt have to see.

Pearl Harbor

  • Pearl Harbor. Copyright © 2001. Rated PG-13
  • Starring Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, William Lee Scott, Greg Xola, Ewen Bremner, Alec Baldwin, James King, Catherine Kellner, Jennifer Garner, Jon Voight (as the pres), Cuba Gooding, Jr, Michael Shannon, Mat Davis, Mako.
  • Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Randall Wallace.
  • Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay at Touchstone/BuenaVista. (C)2001.


Copyright © 2001. Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit:

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Last Modified: Saturday, 16-Sep-2006 08:00:29 PDT