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Pearl Harbor (2001)


There’s a point in Pearl Harbor when Cuba Gooding Jr. leaps into a battleship’s gun turret and starts shooting down Japanese planes while hell rages around him. It’s a dramatic moment… until you realize that it’s that ‘Show me the money!’ guy from Jerry Maguire, shooting CGI bullets at a CGI plane… and you are reminded once again just how phony everything you’ve seen in Pearl Harbor has been.

Ironically, this incident, where ship’s cook Dorie Miller took charge and shot back during America’s worst hour on December 7, 1941, is just about the only true event to be found in the entire, oppressive three-hour film. (And our producers are quick to remind us of just how ripped-from-history this little vignette is. Never mind that Gooding has a pitiful excuse for a role with maybe five minutes of screen time.)

After more than a year of hype, Pearl Harbor finally hits theater screens this Memorial Day weekend, anxious to repeat that Titanic experience, by throwing us a love story set in the most inhospitable of locations. In Titanic, of course, it was a sinking ship. Here, it’s in the middle of a military base while the bombs are dropping around the smoochie lovebirds.

The trailers have been coy with the plot, and I’ll do my best to keep the various twists secret (except for that whole Japanese invasion bit… sorry). Pretty boy Rafe (Ben Affleck) and his scruffy best friend Danny (Josh Hartnett) grow up on a farm, dreaming of taking to the skies in the Air Force. They get their wish when they enlist in 1940, and as Rafe prepares to ship out, he falls madly in love with Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), half nurse, half pin-up girl.

Rafe, ‘a slow reader’ but damn if he doesn’t look good in uniform, volunteers to serve in the British air force, surprising Evelyn and Danny, who head for the sunny, peaceful shores of Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor naval base to ‘sit out’ the war in Europe. While Rafe fights the Nazis, our other pals soak up some rays.

After much gnashing of teeth, we’re thigh-deep in a love triangle. But wouldn’t you know it? Just as the Titanic began to sink halfway through the film, the first bomb is dropped on Pearl Harbor at 1 hour, 30 minutes into Pearl Harbor. 35 minutes later, the siege is over, and we are left to contend with an iffy dénouement (which takes another 55 minutes to get resolved, as the U.S. plans its lame, first counterstrike).

Plot excepted, Pearl Harbor is a good-looking film. When the planes whoosh by we can almost feel the wind. When the bombs drop, we feel the shudder. And when lovable supporting characters get blown to bits, it’s hard to suppress the waterworks.

However, anyone expecting a think piece on the war in the Pacific is going to be sorely disappointed. Unlike, say, Tora! Tora! Tora!, history gets short shrift in Pearl Harbor, as director Michael Bay’s WWII for Dummies gives us laughably simplistic details about why the war with Japan was entered into. Bizarrely, yet in a blatant attempt to garner an international audience that is not offended in any way by the movie, the film virtually absolves Japan of any wrongdoing, excusing the sneak attack as their regrettable only option.

Thank God, at least, that we are mercifully spared the Saving Private Ryan and Titanic flash-forwards to a melodramatic, length-padding present. With a lame and drippy score courtesy of Hans Zimmer, there’s plenty of sap already, thank you very much. As well, the film’s few attempt at lightening things up garner few laughs, if ever.

Critics (myself included) are going to endlessly compare Pearl Harbor to Titanic, and for good reason. However, aside from the length and the love story, these are radically different pictures. Ultimately, Pearl Harbor is not a film made by a man fascinated with history (a la James Cameron), but rather a studio-manufactured tearjerker, with nothing left to chance.

Titanic was so opulent and obsessed with period detail it almost made you forget that Billy Zane can’t act. Pearl Harbor is clearly the work of hundreds of computer experts dueling it out to see who can make the biggest explosion. Been there, done that, folks.

Titanic was a big risk that took guts to make. Pearl Harbor is just another step toward the Disneyfication of our collective memories, trying unsuccessfully to prey upon a resurgence of patriotism.

Titanic was epic, and it made you forget about the passage of time. Pearl Harbor is soulless and desperate in its cheesy attempt to appeal to women, running at three hours long mainly because it’s all done in slow motion.

Which is funny, because the actual invasion in 1941 only lasted for less than two.

There are a couple of DVD releases of Pearl Harbor out now. The first is a handsomely-presented two-disc collection that features Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks, plus the usual making-of documentaries and trailers. There’s also a History Channel documentary, ‘Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor,’ that offers more reality than Michael Bay will ever be able to realize.

The other release is four whopping discs, heralded as ‘the most extensive exploration of moviemaking ever presented.’ The special features are too numerous to list, but highlights include three audio commentaries, tons of making-of features and behind-the-scenes footage, multi-angle features, the aforementioned History Channel documentary plus another one, a collectable booklet, and 60 new shots in the film. It’s exhaustive and impressive… if only it came with a better movie.

The blood’s not real, either.