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Gory glory

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[Photo: Touchstone Pictures]
Pearl Harbor needed more than good looks -- from flyboys Josh Hartnett, left, and Ben Affleck and Greg Zola -- to make it fly.

By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2001


Too many bombs and bullets and too few moments of historical meaning kill any chance of greatness for Pearl Harbor.

You'll be hearing everyone involved in the making and selling of Pearl Harbor speak about the film's duty to honor Americans who died in combat there in 1941. That's easy and commercially diplomatic to say now.

Nothing makes a grab for fame and fortune appear more noble than wrapping yourself in Old Glory.

Why, then, does Michael Bay's movie feel so emotionally shallow? Certainly not for Pearl Harbor survivors and their descendants, who'll cherish the effort more than it deserves. Or any other old soldiers who appreciate anyone remembering. They deserve our thanks -- and a better movie.

For the rest of us without that personal bond to history, Pearl Harbor is merely another big-budget Roman candle for Bay to light up for a holiday, like Armageddon and The Rock. There's a nagging feeling that patriotism is less important to the filmmakers than playing with all of their new demolition gizmos and touching all demographic bases. The date that lives in infamy is now just part of the economy.

Little attention is paid to anything in Bay's film except gauzy 1940s period design and those bombs blowing up the sets. Pearl Harbor does look gorgeously authentic, but the characters inhabiting the movie feel fake. Even real patriots such as FDR and Jimmy Doolittle come out flat and jingoistic as recruitment posters. Twisting history can't make compelling heroes of two pretty-boy actors playing hunks by numbers.

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[Times photo: ]
Ben Affleck plays Army pilot Rafe McCauley in Pearl Harbor.
Ben Affleck poses as Rafe McCauley, an Army pilot alongside his childhood pal, Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett). Like most dramatic fragments of Pearl Harbor, Rafe and Danny are rationed one scene to establish themselves before we're expected to care what happens to them. Good cheekbones aren't enough.

The pals are separated when Rafe is assigned to an RAF division for U.S. pilots assisting raids against Hitler. But, not before Rafe makes schoolboy advances toward a comely nurse named Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale). He gallantly turns down sex with her, one of several calculated swoons pasted in by screenwriter Randall Wallace (Braveheart).

The lovers promise to reunite, but nobody told the Nazi fighter pilot who shoots down Rafe's plane. He's thought to be killed in action, but that doesn't happen so fast to top-billed stars. By the time Rafe returns, Danny and Evelyn are an item. Friendship sours, but there's nothing like a good enemy invasion to make buddies again.

That love triangle pads Bay's inflated running time (nearly twice as long as the actual invasion, which lasted 1 hour 47 minutes) with such 1940s staples as smoky train stations, big-band nightclubs and tiki-bar brawls. We get narrated love letters and puppy-love looks, tittering nurses and soldiers with one identifying trait each to woo them. Everyone's making love when audiences are paying to see someone making war.

Wallace scrambles to build suspense for what we know is coming. Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jon Voight and latex jowls) urges more U.S. intervention in Europe, even if it means stripping the Pacific fleet. The jump to Japan's Admiral Yamamoto (Mako) plotting a surprise attack is abrupt; we've only heard about the Nazi threat and now all of a sudden there's Japan. Wallace is more concerned with nostalgic details than historical ones.

After playing it straight for 90 minutes, Bay gets down to what he does best: blowing things up real good. The 35-minute assault on Pearl Harbor is majestic, bombarding our ears with the sound of world war beginning. It's masterfully digitized, filling the sky with Zeros or following the path of a bomb ripping through the deck of a ship. Strafing bullets and screams of death get exhausting, though. Like Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbor takes almost sadistic pride in faking carnage.

And, since you can't end a movie on a downer, Bay tacks on another half-hour showing Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) leading a suicide bombing mission against Tokyo four months later. Rafe and Danny are there, of course, like leather-jacketed Gumps while Evelyn frets about who'll be left alive for her. The chance for an intelligent, somber climax like the one Tora, Tora, Tora accomplished on the same topic is swapped for a feel-good ending for the summer movie rush.

Good actors such as Cuba Gooding Jr. and Tom Sizemore appear in roles so meaningless in retrospect that one wonders why they bothered. Perhaps they were also expecting Pearl Harbor to be something deeper, more meaningful than it turned out to be. Bay is just playing Armageddon again, turning real-life drama into hokum stretched out from here to eternity.

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MOVIE REVIEW

Pearl Harbor

  • Grade: B-
  • Director: Michael Bay
  • Cast: Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alec Baldwin, Jon Voight, Mako, Tom Sizemore, Colm Feore
  • Screenplay: Randall Wallace
  • Rating: PG-13; violence, profanity, sensuality
  • Running time: 183 min.

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