In the movie Shrek, the title character visits the castle home of the nasty villain. It is a gigantic, grandiose place that sticks out like a sore thumb against everything else in the surrounding area. "I think somebody's trying to compensate for something," Shrek observes. I am starting to believe that the same goes for Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay, the producer and director (respectively) of movies like Bad Boys and Armageddon. Quite simply, they make bad movies, which are then hyped to the moon in an attempt to compensate for their badness. Just look at their latest film - Pearl Harbor. Movies don't come any more excessively hyped than this one. But what really is there to hype? The bad acting? The stilted dialogue? The dishonor the movie brings to a crucial part of American history? No, the filmmakers are hyping explosions. Lots of 'em. And that's been enough to make this a blockbuster-in-waiting.
A debate is already raging at the Online Film Critics Society website. Readers are accusing critics of simply jumping on an anti-Bay/Bruckheimer bandwagon. Let me make this clear up front: I hate this movie, no matter who made it. But I am not surprised that B & B are more interested in blowing stuff up real good than in conveying history.
Oddly, the film opens in 1920's Tennessee, where a young boy named Rafe saves his best pal Danny from an abusive father. We then see them all grown up and in the Army during 1941. Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) are pilots - good ones, too. (We know this because they do an illegal flyby, just like in Top Gun.) Rafe is getting ready to serve in the British Royal Air Force but before he goes, he meets a pretty nurse named Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) and falls in love. She vows to wait for him while he goes abroad to fight. Rafe's plane, however, is shot down and his body is not recovered. Danny comforts his buddy's girl and - of course - they fall in love. The movie assumes we are stupid enough not to know that Rafe is still alive. We sit impatiently waiting for the "surprise revelation" that we know is coming. When he returns, Rafe is enraged that his trusted friend would make a pass at his girl, while Evelyn is torn over which man she loves more.
It is now 90 minutes into the film and Pearl Harbor still has not been bombed. Instead, we have spent way too much time with these dull cookie-cutter characters, entangled in a love triangle we care nothing about. This is standard stuff and its purpose in the plot is as predictable as it is formulaic. (Hint: in war movies, it's always good for the female lead to have a spare boyfriend...just in case.)
Eventually, we get to see President Roosevelt. He's played by Jon Voight, in a chin prosthetic so artificial looking that I nearly exploded with laughter. Scenes of him being briefed about a possible attack are often intercut with scenes of the Japanese army formulating their plot against the United States. Every time they come on screen, ominous music plays on the soundtrack and giant banners of the Rising Sun are positioned eerily in the background. The Japanese in this movie are presented as robotic killers with no political rationale, no emotion. Bay really goes out of his way to make them look and sound evil. Hey, I know they were the enemy, but couldn't we at least concede that they were also human beings in the midst of a war? This is the worst case of stereotyping since Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
The 40-minute sequence is pure Hollywood - an excuse for elaborate special effects and pyrotechnics. Are B & B interested in the human dynamic? Absolutely not. They glamorize the Japanese attack. To them, it's a great big video game. I resent the way they trivialize the men who were victims of Pearl Harbor. The event kicked off American involvement in the war and caused many casualties. This movie understands none of that; it is strangely apolitical in its approach. No one involved here seems to have cared about conveying the meaning of what happened, or of showing the bravery of the troops involved. Bombs, explosions, crashes - that's what this movie is all about. It's not even done well. Yes, the special effects are impressive, but there's no substance underneath, which makes it quite dull.
Here's another example of the film's stupidity and trivialization of history: the only character who sees the Japanese planes preparing to strike is the guy who stutters and is therefore unable to warn the others.
After Pearl Harbor is attacked and the wounded are cared for, the movie drags on for another full hour. Danny and Rafe are enlisted by Colonel James H. Doolittle (Alec Baldwin, overacting shamelessly) for a "top secret" mission to bomb the Japanese in retaliation. I thought the first two hours of this film were boring - they have nothing on hour three. All the predictable elements play out until the U.S. achieves a victory and Evelyn has her man chosen for her by fate.
At this point, I should mention that Cuba Gooding, Jr. is also in the cast. He plays Doris "Dorie" Miller, one of the first African-Americans to be honored by the United States Government for bravery during wartime. Gooding is basically a glorified extra. He comes in briefly about 45 minutes into the movie, has one big scene, and is generally forgotten until the end.
Pearl Harbor fails on so many levels. The love story is unconvincing and flat, and it takes up far too much screen time. The plot about friendship doesn't work either. Rafe and Danny are such one-note characters that I didn't care who lived or died, who got Evelyn or who didn't. Most egregious, though, is the dishonor the film brings to our vets. What they went through was hell. It was most definitely not exciting, not cool, not fun. How sad that major Hollywood players would ignore the humanity of history just so they could get rich off a summer action blockbuster.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. On May 25, 2001, Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay did it again.
( out of four)
Pearl Harbor is rated PG-13 for sustained intense war sequences, images of wounded, brief sensuality and some language. The running time is 3 hours and 3 minutes.
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