The attack on Pearl Harbor over half a century ago gouged in the undefeatable American psyche a deep psychological wound that still hasn t completely healed. Pearl Harbor, Touchstone s epic historical romance, recreates the vainglorious era when swing was cool, liquor and lovers flowed, and the deadly theaters of war were yet to be entered. This tale is of the United States adolescence.
Just the fact that this titanic film -- starring hunky Ben Affleck and the devastating Brit Kate Beckinsale -- appears the summer before the event s 60-year anniversary might make it seem like a sunken ship of a flick. What it turns out to be is a hugely ambitious triptych that mingles fiction, romance, and action adventure in an encapsulated period piece.
At its core is a buddy story. Rural Tennesseans Rafe McCawley (Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) are a pair of clowning-around boys who accidentally joyride dad s crop duster a Kitty Hawk distance. Addicted at an early age to the thrill of flight, they grow up and enter the service as young flyers who hope for ace-hood and to become lady-killing war heroes.
When Rafe gets recruited by the Royal Air Force to die fighting the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, the best buddyship is put on hold as is his innocently budding romance with nurse recruit Evelyn Johnson (Beckinsale). As the luck of the draw will have it, best friend Danny and Evelyn both get stationed on the island paradise of Oahu, at Pearl Harbor, where there s little threat of danger and miles of sand and surf.
Crisis arrives in telegram form. News comes that Rafe has been shot down in battle near Dover. Grief, as it will, unites Danny and Rafe s girl Evelyn in something steamier than mere consolation back at the island.
Much too much time is spent setting up this unintentional love triangle when, by dint of the title alone, pyrotechnics are expected. However intensely filmed and edited they are, the initial dog-fighting scenes roar by quickly, and the first hour of the movie lacks the intensity that extended air battles could have added. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, the biggest drama in this drama, finally takes place well into the double love story s telling. Like an unexpected messiah, Rafe suddenly appears just before December 7. As a surprise we all knew was coming, our hero s return from the dead is an anticlimactic cinematic moment that gets squandered.
When the bombs do fall, they hit loud and hard. Director Michael Bay uses the digitally enhanced air raid as a cue to shift from romantic sappiness to what this movie is really about: pure terror. Ships go down trapping crews, bodies acrobatically fly through the air, and beautiful, leggy nurses on the run get mowed down by machine-gun fire. The violence is more realistic and dramatic than it is grotesque -- there aren t buckets of guts flung skyward for shock value. Hand-held camera techniques and fluid, shifting points of view -- a newsreel reporter s, a dying soldier s -- terrifyingly portray the chaos of wholesale slaughter. Even the confusion of the nurses, who plug arteries with their bare hands and are forced to take blood donations in Coke bottles, is vividly and emotively documented. In one memorable scene of horror, Evelyn learns all she ll ever need to know about triage as the paradisiacal outpost is firebombed into a hell on earth.
The story might have ended in the after-the-storm calm, but it continues into the epical third hour. FDR (John Voight) orders a morale-boosting counterattack. The boys, who had enough courage to scramble into the few planes not obliterated on the ground, volunteer for duty and off they go into the wild blue.
Many aspects don t quite live up to the historical, epic expectations of a film about our bloody initiation into World War Two. Dan Aykroyd and Alec Baldwin are miscast as one-dimensional characters, and the manner in which the Zen-wise Japanese act like emotionally detached robots is entirely superficial. An overtly maudlin score could easily have been supplanted by the incredible big band sounds and jazz that were bubbling forth in the 40s.
The painful reality that Americans faced was material and moral: the loss of most of the Pacific fleet and the instantaneous death of 2,300 young men and women on a quiet Sunday morning. Even though this get-what-you-pay-for thrill ride of a megamovie doesn t delve too deeply into the historical moment it seeks to sumptuously recreate, it does pump the adrenaline, puff up the eyes, and convey what the massive suffering must have been like on that day of infamy. In its purely entertaining conflagration of gorgeous destruction, Pearl Harbor opens a vein that makes war-time love stories a timeless obsession: the loss of innocence and the epiphany of our own vulnerability. And the realization that nothing is ever fair in love and war.