May 26, 2001

"Pearl Harbor"


       Sitting through "Pearl Harbor" felt like sitting through three other, better, movies: "From Here to Eternity," "Tora, Tora, Tora" and "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo."  As with just about all movies these days, you can say, "The story sucked, but the effects were good."  Since I will always believe that special effects exist strictly as an aid to storytelling, if the story sucks, but the effects are good, that still means that the film sucked.  Good effects will never make a good film.
       Let's face two facts: 1.) movies about battles that we lost just aren't all that much fun to watch; 2.) no one will ever find a better story structure for the attack on Pearl Harbor than James Jones used in "From Here to Eternity."  By really and truly caring about his characters, as well as having first-hand knowledge of what it was like being stationed in Pearl Harbor before, during, and after the attack, Jones gets you to care so much about these people's lives and fates that you forget that the attack is coming.  When the attack comes as the finale of the story, it's always surprising and horrifying and very effective.
       Well, that's not how it is in "Pearl Harbor."  Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay are so desperate to give us some action early on that they throw away whatever little empathy we may have developed for these characters by improbably sending Ben Affleck off to fight with the British in early 1941.  Pretty quickly he is shot down and we're supposed to believe he's dead.  Well, come on!  The top-billed actor is dead in the first 30 minutes of a three hour film?  I really doubted it, and by golly I was right, too.
       Once Ben is gone, the story then moves to the painful and awful place of the girlfriend and the best friend getting it on.  Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but as soon as this occurred I didn't like either of them anymore.  When Ben returns, as he must, he spends the rest of the picture acting like a petulant little putz, saying, "But why?" and them responding, "We thought you were dead" and him stomping off in a huff saying.  "Well, I wasn't, but I wish I were now."


Cuba Gooding, Jr. as real life hero Doris "Dorie" Miller, Navy Messman Third Class

       The dialog between Affleck and Kate Beckinsdale -- who is attractive, but ineffective -- is embarrassingly bad.  The best he can come up with to express his deep, undying love is, "Gosh, you're pretty." 
       The subplots are so slim as to be almost nonexistent.  The story of Cuba Gooding, Jr., the black cook who took over a 50-caliber machine gun and shot down several Japanese planes, is actually a better story than the main plot, but gets totally short-shrifted.  We meet him once and he is very improbably having a boxing match with some big white guy on the deck of a ship.  I can just see the little wheels spinning in the minds of Bruckheimer, Bay, and writer Randall Wallace, "We have to set up Cuba as a real fighter, but we don't want to waste any time on this since we only have three hours."  "Hey!  What if he's in the middle of a boxing match when we first meet him?  That way we don't really have to bother with any of that annoying character development stuff and we know he's a fighter."  Then there's a chorus of "Yeahs!" and "Rights!" as though they just had a good idea.

       We never really get to know any of the other fliers or sailors or nurses, so killing them doesn't mean anything.  When one of them dies, I had to strain my memory to try and recall if this was character I'd actually met before.  This is "Pearl Harbor's" biggest downfall -- getting the audience to care about the characters is absolutely imperative if you're going to spend most of the movie almost killing them, or actually killing them.  Without characters to relate to it's all a lot of Sturm und Drang.  Boom, boom, boom.  This may be sufficient for the modern audience, but for me it was a crashing bore.  I'd say the key word in describing this film is: Interminable. 
       Also, casting Jon Voight as FDR is pretty weird.  He certainly doesn't look like him, no matter how much make-up they apply, and he doesn't really sound like him, either.  (Where's Ralph Bellamy when you need him?).
       Yes, the digital effects are state-of-the-art and quite impressive -- everything blows up real good.  But I'd personally much rather see all those effects used to blow up our enemies instead of ourselves.