Tora! Tora! Torpid!
Pearl Harbor Lasts From Here to Eternity
In the more than three hours it takes to watch Pearl Harbor, the new slam-bang but mostly kiss-kiss account of the 1941 Japanese attack on a U.S. naval base that prompted the Yanks to enter World War II, you could see From Here to Eternity one and a half times. And you'll probably wish you did.
Pearl Harbor is reminiscent of a lot of other movies--1953's Eternity, yes, but also Gone With the Wind, Pearl co-producer Jerry Bruckheimer's Top Gun, and Titanic. Especially Titanic, from Pearl's dewy love triangle to the way director Michael Bay sinks the U.S.S. Arizona, with computer-generated sailors clinging to the ship's deck as it tips.
One movie you won't be reminded of very much is Steven Spielberg's bloody D-Day epic Saving Private Ryan. It's pretty unlikely that Pearl will duplicate Ryan's adult appeal; its audience will consist less of elderly vets and their grateful baby-boom children than of teenagers who find Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, and/or Kate Beckinsale dreamy. Aside from the video-game-like bombings, a curse word or two, and a few peeks at naked sailor butt, Pearl Harbor is nothing your average 'N Sync fan couldn't handle.
Affleck and Hartnett play Maverick and Iceman--er, I mean, Rafe and Danny, a pair of daring Navy pilots who've been buddies since they grew up together in rural Tennessee (a plot conceit that has Affleck affecting an Elvisoid drawl). Rafe falls in love with Navy nurse Evelyn (Beckinsale), but duty calls and he volunteers to help the Brits battle the Luftwaffe as part of an elite international squadron. His absence triggers predictable romantic geometry: Word comes back that Rafe has been killed in action; the grief-stricken Evelyn and Danny, both now stationed at Pearl Harbor, fall into each others' arms. And then those wily Japanese ruin everything.
You may have heard that Disney's Touchstone Pictures is planning to tweak Pearl for Japanese and German audiences, but it's hard to imagine what objectionable bits would be cut--there's little gratuitous ethnic baiting here. The filmmakers' real problems stem from what they've left out. Pearl's Japanese, seen in fleeting scenes as they plan the attack, are so intent on being an army of one that they don't have names or personalities. Though the movie extends into the spring of 1942, there's not even a hint that Japanese-Americans were by then being herded into internment camps. Hell, there's barely a hint that there were Japanese-Americans.
Rather, a spirit of revisionist nicey-nice pervades Pearl. The nurses are virginal and mostly stay that way; when one announces her pregnancy, we see the expectant mom several months later, her tummy still flat as a board. We're given pristine fireballs of battle, but the bloody aftermath, in the overcrowded, chaotic hospital, is mostly shot in woozy soft focus. The armed forces were still segregated then, but you wouldn't know that from race's cryptic treatment here. (Cuba Gooding Jr. plays a ship's cook who boxes to earn "respect" and must defend his honor when Ernest Borgnine calls him a . . . whoops, wrong movie.)
But Pearl has love, not war, on its mind, so historical nitpicking seems churlish (though somehow I doubt that FDR, played here by Jon Voight, ever stood up on his polio-ruined legs--refusing the help of his valet, James Brown-style--to make a point in a Cabinet meeting). And the movie's romance is what pads the running time: shot after shot of Evelyn basking in Hawaiian sunsets or having teary-eyed arguments with one of her flyboy swains, or posing nude while Rafe sketches her . . . sorry, wrong movie again. Trouble is, the love story is so by-the-numbers, so full of noble war-movie archetypes rather than flesh and blood and messy emotion, that Pearl Harbor feels like the longest day you'll ever spend at the movies.