by E.T. Robbins
Is it sink or swim for the first blockbuster of summer? Prediction: Disney’s summer blockbuster will break all box office records!
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For the last six months I can’t recall having gone to a movie without seeing the Pearl Harbor trailer. After viewing it for the umpteenth time, I entertained myself by making predictions. Disney is going to make a gazillion dollars on Jerry Bruckheimer’s and Michael Bay’s latest collaboration (a good thing since the film cost nearly 140 million dollars to make). Faith Hill will pull a Celine Dion and have an Oscar winning hit on her hands with There You’ll Be. Josh Hartnett will be a household name by the end of summer. Maybe Ben Affleck will get back together with Gwyneth Paltrow. Want me to stop? Would you rather read my comments on the movie? Be careful how you answer this question. It’s not that Pearl Harbor is really that bad; it’s just that it’s not really that great.
Yes, the cast is incredible (just like Titanic). Yes, the special effects are impressive (just like Titanic). Yes, we know how the real story ends, but watch the fictional story anyway (just like Titanic). Get the picture?
This three-hour film is predictable from start to finish (and I’m not referring to the bombing scenes). Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) are boyhood friends who come of age during the turbulent 1940’s. Both Rafe and Danny are excellent pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Mentored by Lt. Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle (Alec Baldwin), Rafe is a daring and borderline risky pilot who volunteers for the Eagle Squadron—Americans who fight side by side with the British. Always a big brother figure to Danny, Rafe tells his friend that he was assigned to the Eagle Squadron so that Danny doesn’t try to stop him. Rafe goes off to England while Danny is transferred to Pearl Harbor along with Rafe’s true love, Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a navy nurse.
In England, Rafe discovers the horror of real war as opposed to the adrenaline- rush-like training sessions back home. He proves to be an exemplary pilot in combat, however he realizes there is more to life than flying. Evelyn spends her time pining for him and crafting five-page letters while watching Hawaiian sunsets. After a daring mission, Rafe doesn’t return to his base in England. Everyone is convinced he is dead (hint: do you really think they’re going to kill Ben Affleck one hour into a three hour film?). What’s a best friend and girlfriend supposed to do as they mourn their beloved Rafe? You get the idea. Within a half-hour—Poof! An instant love triangle.
The whole time this is happening, the audience anxiously waits for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As military officials scrutinize coded messages and the Japanese carefully plan their assault on the Pacific Fleet’s naval base, John Voight effectively plays a reluctant-to-enter-the-war FDR. The special effects are stunning—underwater shots of torpedoes zipping through the legs of drowning men are numbing. The bomb that lifts the USS Arizona out of the water for a terrifying moment before smashing into the sea is an image that is difficult to shake. However, special effects can just get you so far.
Perhaps the film should have “borrowed” something else from the Titanic formula. Although Titanic was a lengthy film, it wrapped up quickly after the sinking of the ship. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the love triangle still needs to be resolved and is done so in pure Hollywood fashion taking a real event, the 1942 air raid of Tokyo, and throwing the three lovers in the mix.
Certain images do standout. As the injured and near-dead infiltrate the hospital, Evelyn is instructed by the doctors to only allow the ones who can be saved to enter the building. Pulling out a shiny red lipstick, Evelyn marks the heads of the men—“C” for critical and “M” for morphine. During this gruesome process, a sailor looks at her imploringly and asks if he is going to die. In her shining moment in this film, Beckinsale cradles his head in her hands and reassures him that he will be fine. She says this while writing “F” on his forehead—a definite failing grade. How many men were comforted with compassionate words like these—words that would prove to be untrue?
The image of a seaman brushing his teeth as the bombing begins, his mouth white and frothy from the toothpaste, effectively showcases how much of a surprise the Japanese attack was on a sleepy Sunday in December 1941. We see the seaman moments later stunned, shaken—the toothbrush still dangling from his mouth. An innocent boy minding the simple details of his life only to lose because of a complex war.
Luckily a stellar cast saves Pearl Harbor. As Dorie Miller, Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire, As Good As It Gets) once again shows his versatility. With only several pages of dialogue at best, Gooding Jr. expertly acts with his eyes and his face. It’s a minor role in comparison to Affleck, but an important role in relation to history—Gooding Jr. realistically portrays the plight of a black man in the navy.
As Lt. Colonel Doolittle, Alec Baldwin’s coarse charm, patriotism, and compassion for the young men he trains is obvious. We truly understand why he is a hero and mentor.
English actress Kate Beckinsale (Last Days of Disco) plays Rafe’s and Danny’s love interest, Evelyn. What can I say? She’s beautiful. Unfortunately the script doesn’t allow her to show much beyond beauty. At least in Titanic, Kate Winslet’s Rose had attitude and spunk. She grew as a woman during the course of the film. Kate Beckinsale never gets the chance to grow. The script has her dealing with two handsome, honorable men—both of whom adore her. What’s a girl to do? Paint her fingernails apparently—she is perfectly manicured with bright red polish in every scene. Perhaps we’ll see if there is more to this pretty face in the forthcoming film Serendipity with John Cusack.
Ben Affleck is a fine actor and there is no doubt that he is here to stay. I hope he will return to more challenging vehicles in the artistic sense like Chasing Amy rather than blow ‘em up blockbusters like Armageddon and now Pearl Harbor. Some of his best work has been in supporting roles—Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love, and Boiler Room. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a leading man—he is convincing as a fighter pilot who desires risk and danger, but in the end just wants to hold hands with the one he loves.
With large brown eyes, perfect hair, and a body that makes women swoon, there is no doubt Josh Hartnett (The Faculty, Town & Country) has chosen the right vehicle for instant, massive audience appeal. He is shy, sweet, and handles what could be a maudlin scene at the end of the film with ease. It will be interesting to see what this young actor has to offer in future roles.
Overall the movie is tedious. Although there are good moments, they are overshadowed by a contrived love story. Here’s one final prediction. People will go see Pearl Harbor no matter what I say. It’s officially summer. That means beaches, ballgames, and blockbuster movies with big stars and even bigger special effects. Is that so bad? Of course not. But I must admit that I am looking forward to new previews.
E.T. Robbins is a freelance writer and DJ on Magic 106.7 in Boston. She enjoys trips to Cape Cod, hanging out with her cat/muse Dorian Gray, and eating Red Swedish Fish.
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