Pearl Harbor (2001) Review

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A movie that will live in infamy

Pearl Harbor (2001): 7 out of 10: is a romantic war drama directed by Michael Bay that revolves around the events leading up to and following the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.

The film begins with childhood friends Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker growing up in Tennessee in the 1920s. Bonding over their shared love of flying, they dream of becoming pilots together. As they enter adulthood, they both become accomplished pilots serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

In 1941, Rafe (played by Ben Affleck) volunteers to fight alongside the Royal Air Force in Britain, leaving behind his girlfriend, Evelyn Johnson (played by Kate Beckinsale), a nurse stationed at the army hospital. While in Britain, Rafe is shot down and presumed dead. Devastated by his apparent loss, Evelyn finds solace in Danny (played by Josh Hartnett), who has always harbored feelings for her.

However, Rafe survives and returns to find Danny and Evelyn in a relationship. Despite his initial shock and heartbreak, Rafe comes to terms with their newfound love and the trio attempts to navigate their complicated emotions.

Meanwhile, tensions escalate between the United States and Japan, culminating in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The attack devastates the U.S. Pacific Fleet and thrusts America into World War II.

In the aftermath of the attack, Rafe and Danny heroically take to the skies to defend their country, shooting down enemy planes and participating in rescue missions. Their bravery earns them recognition and leads to their involvement in the Doolittle Raid, a retaliatory bombing raid on Japan.

Tragically, during the raid, Danny is mortally wounded while protecting Rafe. With his dying breaths, Danny entrusts Rafe with Evelyn’s unborn child, cementing their bond as brothers.

The Good

The Good: Pearl Harbor is a much better movie than its reputation would indicate. It has a much broader scope than the titular attack (It goes from the Battle of Britain to the Doolittle Raid.) Pearl Harbor is absolutely loaded with star power and talented actors. Everyone from Dan Ackroyd as the mandatory US navy character who sees the attack coming that no one believes to Tom Sizemore as World War 2 guy in World War 2 movie. There are also plenty of hey it’s that guy moments from Michael Shannon to Jennifer Garner to Ted McGinley, of all people.

Also say what you want about Michael Bay. The man knows how to point a camera. Pearl Harbor is in borderline “every frame is a painting” territory. There are too many gorgeous set pieces to count and both Hawaii and Kate Beckinsale are photographed beautifully in a golden light.

Pearl Harbor is a breezy three hours as well. There is a plot through line that the movie hangs itself on (Any who has suffered through Ridley Scott’s Napoleon recently understands the importance of a narrative hook.) And while some, including myself, have, shall we say, issues with the plot through line itself (see below) it does its job to keep the narrative focused and moving.

I was surprised (even on a second viewing) how much time Michael Bay spends with the Japanese planning the attack. He almost does that Tora! Tora! Tora! thing where the events are split to show both sides. Pearl Harbor also spends time with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cabinet. And while Jon Voight as Franklin D. Roosevelt is not the highlight of the film, by any means, he does an adequate job. Even these scenes are shot with the golden morning sun streaming through the White House windows.

Then we have the attack. The effects and models hold up twenty-five years later. It is spectacular giving one a real time and place and sense of the scope of the attack. This is Michael Bay at his best, and he clearly poured his heart and soul into this sequence.

The Bad

The Bad: I have long given up asking historical films to be accurate. Some bother me more than others. I don’t mind Braveheart getting pretty much everything wrong, but The Patriot sticks in my craw. Pearl Harbor isn’t really that bad on the score. For the record, though American pilots were not officially in the Battle of Britain and had one fled to Canada and joined the Air Force there to take part, the same pilot would not be sauntering to Hawaii on December 6th, 1941.

Outside of that, most of the “errors” were relatively minor. The Japanese did not purposely shoot up the naval hospital as depicted in the film. They accidentally shot up the naval hospital, so I will allow it. The rest of the errors are honesty nitpicks like characters smoking filtered cigarettes, Dan Ackroyd’s glasses being rimless and the Queen Mary not being in war paint in New York Harbor.

Honestly, for a film that got as much flack as it did when it was released I was expecting a lot more than a Comic Book Guy’s complaint that “In the film version of the Pearl Harbor attacks, the planes were equipped with P-40s. However, the models seen were P-40Ks, P-40Ms, and P-40Ns – not the P-40Bs or P-40Cs that were used during the actual attack.”

The Ugly

The Ugly: Okay, so why is Pearl Harbor a seven instead of a nine? Well, Michael Bay was going for Titanic. He certainly spent Titanic style monies. Alas, a swing and a miss.

So we have a love triangle. Ben Affleck is charismatic and successfully pulls off an egotistical flyboy. Kate Beckinsale has the best teeth I have ever seen in a film. And Josh Hartnett is kind of well… there.

So Ben has a couple of meet cutes with Kate in New York. they go on a ridiculously over the top date hanging off the side of the Queen Mary (A direct nod to Titanic perhaps) and then Ben goes to England to fight Nazis. Meanwhile, Kate stays true to her guy and, being a nurse, transfers to the Tripler Hospital in Hawaii.

Josh is Ben’s childhood friend and is transferred to Hawaii as well. He keeps an eye on Kate and behaves himself into word comes in that Ben was shot down in the English Channel and presumed dead.

So after this tragic news Josh and Kete become closer and… Okay, let me stop for a minute. First of all, why had Kate not introduced Josh to her nursing friends? He is an attractive pilot and certainly Jaime King, Catherine Kellner, Sara Rue, or even freaking Jennifer Garner would do in a pinch.

Look, I have been in this same situation… minus the war and nurses. And let me tell you, there is no way Kate’s character would have let Josh go unhooked up with one of her friends in the months before the “news” struck.

Okay, let’s assume Josh hooked up with Jennifer Gardner, but Kate has much better teeth than Jennifer and he can’t keep his mind off her. Then Ben is sleeping with the fishes and he makes his move. And he is remarkably successful. Instead of an outrageous date on the side of the Queen Mary, he takes her up in his plane where he lets her play with his flight stick and then back to the hanger with that magic light and lots of silk parachutes. And she once again takes the flight stick.

So she is pregnant and we are at the maybe we will name him Ben stage of chitchat and then freaking Ben Affleck shows up.

Ben tells the tale how he “Floated at sea for days nearly unconscious. And then, as luck would have it, I was picked up by a passing freighter. Of course, I tried to get them to come back and save you, too. But it was a foreign ship, and they didn’t understand English. I yelled and screamed, but it only seemed to excite them even more. They took advantage of me in ways I cannot describe.” Hold on, that was Nigel’s story from Top Secret!. Anyway, you get the gist.

And if the movie took place in 1841, I doubt anyone would have a problem with this. Alas, Michael Bay flew too close to the sun here. Why exactly did Ben not call ahead? Telegraph even? Seriously, who flies for two days from England to Hawaii to yell surprise?

Thankfully, the Japanese attack the next morning.

Neither Ben nor Josh seem like real people in Pearl Harbor. They are just a bit too heroic, an almost superhero level of competence and have serious main character syndrome. Kate fares better in Pearl Harbor and could be a real person. Of the three, Josh simply is out shown by his other co-stars. It is unfortunate. He is out of his weight class charisma wise here.

In Conclusion

In Conclusion: When people talk about why they dislike Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, they talk about the romance and love triangle. And they are not wrong. There is a feeling that the focus on the love triangle is disrespectful to those that died.

I disagree. I think Pearl Harbor needed a through story to hang its hat on and Ben and Josh’s friendship and falling out over a girl only to come together in the face of an attack by the Japanese is a perfectly fine story. The romance just does not work. If you took Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Billy Zane and put them in an English country house setting, you could still have a very valid romance. Ben, Josh and Kate simply do not generate the same heat.

Romance aside, however, Pearl Harbor is a beautiful and entertaining film. A cast of thousands, fantastic special effect, beautiful scenery, expert direction and a surprisingly large and sensitive scope telling dozens of stories. It is overall an excellent film.

Kate is beautifully photographed in Pearl Harbor.
I have no idea what Josh Hartnett is wearing around his neck? Is it a leather collar? Part of Fremen stillsuit? I am at a loss here.
Cuba Gooding Jr. as Doris Miller, who was the first Black recipient of the Navy Cross and a nominee for the Medal of Honor. As a mess attendant second class in the United States Navy, Miller helped carry wounded sailors to safety during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He then manned an anti-aircraft gun and, despite no prior training in gunnery, officially shot down one plane. (There are claims of more)
I am so happy that Pearl Harbor included Doris Miller’s story. By the way, I had assumed that Bay and his screenwriter made up the boxing subplot to give Miller an excuse to meet Beckinsale’s character. Nope, It was on West Virginia where he started competition boxing, becoming the ship’s heavyweight champion.
Serpentine… Serpentine.
There are shots like this for days in Pearl Harbor
Lot’s of single nurses that are best friends with you buddies girlfriend. Surely you could have introduced one or more to your flight stick instead Josh?
Michael Bay does some fantastic environmental storytelling here.
I love the little details during the attack. That yacht with the American flag on the left, I am pretty sure there was someone out on a beautiful Sunday morning on his wooden yacht witnessing the carnage.
The Japanese get their own fog machine.
Never go full Ben Affleck.
Seriously look at those teeth.
The wargamer in me would love this set up in the backyard.
Leaving the imminent attack aside there are worse Navy assignments,
A poor boy from Tennessee arranged this? Sure Jan.
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