Roosevelt was right: After nearly six decades, Dec. 7, 1941, still lives in infamy. But bringing this red-letter date to the screen has always been tricky. Japan's raid on the American fleet only took a few hours, yet the magnitude of the moment has always demanded Hollywood's epic treatment. So how do you fill the time?
There have traditionally been two courses of attack. In Tora! Tora! Tora!, the 1970 Pearl Harbor account filmed by twin Japanese and American crews, machinations of diplomacy and training are presented with documentary-style precision, as if to retrace our every last misguided step. Counting down to the bombing, no time is wasted on side plots. In Fred Zinnemann's 1953 classic From Here to Eternity, however, Pearl Harbor is a mere backdrop to foibles consuming the likes of Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster. Here the bombing symbolizes their mutual impending doom. Both films work because they don't try to do it all.
Considering the cheesy operatic gusto of Armageddon and The Rock, perhaps it's no surprise director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer don't possess that same restraint. At nearly three hours, Pearl Harbor is part love story, part action flick, part history--all things to all people. Or so they hope. Ben Affleck and emerging teen heartthrob Josh Hartnett (The Virgin Suicides) play Tennessee hicks who have dreamed since boyhood of airborne glory. On the eve of America's entry into World War II, however, they're fighting each other for the affections of nurse Evelyn (The Last Days of Disco's Kate Beckinsale). And in a patronizing side plot, Cuba Gooding Jr. plays a Navy cook busily earning respect for his entire race--Sidney Poitier with a better physique. No wonder nobody notices an attack coming.
When the bombs finally drop after 90 minutes of screen time, one is almost glad to see America's fleet torched. Sorry to all you patriots, but nothing is worse than tender moments from a blockbuster. Like James Cameron's Titanic, this is a bloated, corny movie with some astonishing moments. Unsurprisingly, Bay is at his best in the action sequences, employing computerized effects to give Pearl Harbor--like Titanic and Gladiator before it--an epic scope that previous versions of the same historical event lacked. In fact, this is easily the most impressive rendering of December 7 ever committed to film. (Dig that bomb's-eye-view shot!) What's more, Pearl Harbor continues after the bombing with the Doolittle Raids over Tokyo, a gloriously gutsy historical footnote that's rarely dramatized onscreen.
Unfortunately, Bay's visceral flag-wrapped battle sequences remain dwarfed by tedious melodrama. (The back-story goes from here to eternity, you might say.) Bay and Bruckheimer clearly view moviemaking as one big manipulative thrill-ride, so why not cut to the chase? No doubt test-audience data showed that a more focused war movie--or unfettered love story for that matter--would drive away some crucial demographic. That's just the kind of greed and arrogance that begs for a sneak attack.
also stars Alec Baldwin, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore and Dan Aykroyd.
A single camera shot of the bombing, dubbed "Big Shot No. 1" by the crew, used 7,000 sticks of dynamite, 2,000 feet of prima cord and 4,000 gallons of gasoline to ignite six ships.
is available on DVD and home video.
is available on home video.