Pearl Harbor isn't a movie at all, but a highlight reel prepared for a Jerry Bruckheimer career retrospective. It's as impressive and as empty as any movie the producer has ever made, nearly every one of which has been cut and pasted into this World War II monstrosity. There's Top Gun: Two hotshot pilots, Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), are called on the carpet by their commanding officer, James Doolittle (Alec Baldwin), for their hotshot high jinks. But after the two prove their mettle over the smoke-and-Zero-filled skies of Hawaii, Doolittle rounds them up for a top-secret mission. He needs the best of the best to bomb Japan, and only Maverick and Goose can lead the charge. Then there's Armageddon: As the world burns, there's still time for the young and restless to fall in love. Once more, Affleck finds himself caught in a love triangle, this time with his childhood best friend, Danny (they dreamed of becoming pilots back in 1923 Tennessee), and the woman they both crave, a nurse named Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), who only looks just like Liv Tyler. Mix in a little March or Die and Crimson Tide, and Pearl Harbor is the war movie Bruckheimer has been trying to make for nearly 25 years -- a brilliant spectacle, bereft of any humanity. Despite its innumerable holocausts, it's still cold to the touch.
Bruckheimer and director-cum-co-conspirator Michael Bay have even managed to make a movie about the date which will live in infamy and still tack on the (relatively) happy ending: The film concludes not with the destruction of Pearl Harbor -- which occurs well into the movie, and long before its finale -- or its aftermath but with Doolittle's spring 1942 raid over Tokyo, which was but a "pinprick" compared to the sledgehammer used by the Japanese over Hawaii. We're ushered out of the theater with comforting words spoken by Evelyn: "America suffered," she insists, "but it grew stronger." Bruckheimer, who always manages to sneak in a fluttering Old Glory into every single one of his pictures, all but stands on the bow of the U.S.S. Arizona himself, waving the flag atop the pile of cash this movie's sure to take in.
Pearl Harbor plays like some 1950s vestige (or a 1980s mini-series); it's a WWII movie bereft of post-Vietnam War cynicism. Every man and woman is a hero, untouched by cowardice. There's the nurse (Beckinsale) who goes to Pearl Harbor for a little fun in the sun and winds up knee-deep in gore; she's the calm in the center of the whirlwind, the only one sane and strong enough to tend to the wounded. There's the black cook (Cuba Gooding Jr., relegated to a token role) who joined the navy to become a man, only to be treated like a boy; he's the accidental hero, the Jap-killer in an apron. (Gooding portrays seaman Dorie Miller, and his handful of scenes look to have been stolen directly from Tora! Tora! Tora!) Then there's Rafe, who volunteers to fight with the British long before the Americans have even joined the war. He's the poster boy for heroism, the indestructible killing machine. (He dies more before breakfast than most people do all day.)
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Yet jingoism and romance make for a lethal cocktail, especially when Bruckheimer and Bay are good at only one thing: blowing stuff up. Every line of dialogue, every sanctimonious speech, is delivered with symphonic accompaniment, as though the words themselves are too hollow and banal to effect any real sting. Screenwriter Randall Wallace, like Bay and Bruckheimer, is the hip-hop filmmaker: In lieu of original ideas, he samples from other war movies until the audience knows the dialogue by heart. "I'm not anxious to die, sir," Rafe tells one officer. "I'm anxious to matter." Little wonder, then, that the movie feels so empty most of the time; you've memorized every word long before you've actually seen it.
The battle proper doesn't take place until the movie is more than half over, and by then it's a relief from the banal soap opera. One might (should?) even feel a little guilty, waiting for the money shot Bay and Bruckheimer keep in their pockets; who would actually pray for the murders of some 3,000 soldiers and sailors, just to add a little zip to an otherwise turgid love story? But producer and director are shameless, building to the carnage the way a new lover might tease another with endless foreplay. By the time the explosions come, they last forever -- bomb upon bomb, explosion upon explosion, corpse upon corpse. We even sit atop a bomb as it plows into the Arizona, burrows deep within its hull and tears asunder the mighty ship from the inside out. But where Terry Southern gave us a bomb's-eye view in Dr. Strangelove to play up the idiocy of war, Bay does it for kicks and grins. He's got a new toy -- much of the action was manufactured by computers -- and isn't it cool?
Pearl Harbor has no interest in the hows and whys that led to the Japanese attack, only in the booms. Tora! Tora! Tora! -- Richard Fleischer's 1970 Pearl Harbor film, told from the Japanese and American perspectives with all the passion of a three-hour classroom lecture -- was all about the details, peace talks and betrayals. Pearl Harbor can't be bothered with history; figures such as President Roosevelt (Jon Voight) and Admiral Yamamoto (Mako) are bit players in a movie obsessed with scenes of destruction and sex in airplane hangars. It's war porn, a movie that revels in the carnage; this might as well be the attack on the Death Star (the planes move with the agility of X-Wings, and they blow up like TIE fighters) or the sinking of the Titanic (as the Arizona sinks, crewmen dangle from its deck like helpless passengers clinging to deck chairs).
Bay, who directed previous Bruckheimer films The Rock and Armageddon, doesn't waste a single frame; every shot is its own Rockwell painting, glistening with damp-eyed nostalgia and sticky sentimentality. He frames his lovers with sunsets and smoke, but Affleck, Hartnett and Beckinsale aren't big enough to fill the canvas; they're gliders in a world of P-40 fighters. Rafe, Danny and Evelyn aren't characters so much as they're icons lifted from the novels of Herman Wouk; in the end, it's not about who lives or dies, but who ends up with whom. War may be hell, but it's apparently nothing compared to sharing a woman with your best friend.