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That Sinking Feeling...

Nathan Davies


Starring: Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Cuba Gooding Jr, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Dan Ackroyd
Director: Michael Bay
Producer: Jerry Bruckhiemer
Screenplay: Randall Wallace

At 7.55, on the morning of December 7th 1941, the United States of America was suddenly, and deliberately attacked by the Empire of Japan. The attack came without warning or apparent provocation, striking, destroying or otherwise immobilising, the mainstay of the American Pacific fleet while in dock at Pearl Harbor. It was cold, calculated and the effects were devastating, leaving over 2000 Americans dead and over 1000 more wounded. However, these events, the scheming and the suffering, are almost incidental to this over-hyped film.

To set the record straight from the start, despite what most of the trailers suggest, Pearl Harbor is not about the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It is not a war film. It is not a gripping tale of America’s entry into World War II. Despite some claims to the contrary, it is not even a homage to those who were attacked. It is, instead, the bastard progeny of a buddy movie and a period romance with the occasional not-too-subtle nod to the American ego. It is, as producer Jerry Bruckhiemer is reported to have called it, ‘Titanic with bombs’. Titanic has a lot to answer for.

Like its conceptual, peacetime predecessor, Pearl Harbor is the story of a love that is disastrously interrupted by tragic historical events. However, staying true to the summer blockbuster format, it tries to go one better by having two leading men, both of whom are in love with the same woman and share the same dream of one day becoming ace combat fighter pilots. The more adventurous of the pair, the honour-bound, over-protective daredevil, Lt. Rafe McCauley (played by Ben Affleck), is the first to see combat when he transfers to the RAF’s Eagle squadron for American volunteers, but not before he meets military nurse Evelyn Stewart (Kate Beckinsale). They fall in love and she agrees to wait for him to return, but soon after transferring to the Hawaiian Island of Oahu with Rafe’s flight group she is told that he was killed in action over the English Channel. But, predictably, he isn’t dead, and returns as promised some months later to find her in a relationship with his fellow pilot and best friend Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett). Before anything can be resolved, however, the Japanese begin their attack.

On paper it sounds fine (if somewhat clichéd) and indeed it might have been had the writer, Randall Wallace, or director Michael Bay (best known for the predictable but otherwise enjoyable and well paced Armageddon) seen fit to end the film soon after. Unfortunately, already at a staggering one hour thirty minutes into the film, the actual attack on the American fleet is nothing more than a glorified centrepiece, with the end, and promise of resolution, still another long hour and a half away.

The beginning, too, drags on for longer than it should, substituting what could have been effective (and efficient) pacing for lingering shots of the grand set-pieces, poorly executed extended explanations of the developing relationships, and ego flattering throw away subplots involving US Naval Intelligence, President Roosevelt and the Japanese strike command. As all of this is largely irrelevant to the love story, it can, in my opinion, only have been included as filler, both to justify the enormous budget (reported to have exceeded $135 million, scaled down from $200 million) and to make the Americans feel better about this actual historical defeat. In fact the whole second half of this three hours plus film is dedicated, in some way or another, to salvaging a victory for America, but for all the breast-beating, what they manage to come up with is pitiful and, despite all the spectacular special effects, unsatisfying.

The long and short of it is, the film is short on plot and is far too long.
© Nathan Davies 2001
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Visit the official Pearl Harbor website

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