Pearl Harbor delivers two films in one, which in some ways might be considered a good return on its reported production budget of $140 million. One of those films is a dynamic depiction of the infamous surprise Japanese attack on U.S. military forces stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii--the tragedy that spurred America's entry into World War II. Unfortunately, that movie doesn't begin until halfway through this three-hour Jerry Bruckheimer production. While the audience waits for the fireworks to commence, the first 90 minutes of Pearl Harbor is consumed by an uninspired romantic-triangle drama. The role model here is clearly Titanic, with its mix of passion and epic disaster, but Pearl Harbor's leads never create the sparks that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet brought to that often corny James Cameron blockbuster.
That said, the second half of Pearl Harbor has more than enough explosive action to assure its place among the summer's top moneymakers. In a massive sequence that just keeps going and going and going, director Michael Bay gives the viewer an almost unbearably vivid sense of being caught in the middle of the terrifying early-morning assault that killed more than 3,000 men and women. In a seamless blend of stunt fliers and visual-effects work by Industrial Light & Magic, hundreds of Japanese bombers descend upon the quiet military base and ignite a firestorm. One set piece, the rolling over of the huge USS Oklahoma, evokes the climax of Titanic, as hundreds of sailors desperately cling to the upturned deck. The action continues, as pilots and childhood buddies Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) race to an outlying hangar, intent on getting airborne and shooting down some enemy planes. With a swiftness it could have used much earlier, the movie then proceeds to preparations for Colonel Jimmy Doolittle's (Alec Baldwin) daring retaliatory raid on the city of Tokyo.
If only the first half of Pearl Harbor weren't so sappy and generic, Bay and Bruckheimer might have scored an unqualified hit. As it is, this movie about a solemn milestone in U.S. history often feels no more substantial than those disaster movies of the '70s where you suffer through rote character development in anticipation of the pending earthquake, tidal wave or towering inferno. Screenwriter Randall Wallace, who fared much better with the audience pleasing Braveheart, fills the movie with risible romantic declarations, portents of doom and jingoistic clichs. ("If there are many more like you," an admiring British officer tells RAF volunteer Rafe, "God help anyone who goes to war with America.") Wallace's most blatant plot device has Rafe being shot down over Europe, only to resurface--with exquisite bad timing--in Pearl Harbor two days before the attack. (Rafe's presumed death sets in motion the triangle, as his lover, nurse Evelyn Johnson, played by Kate Beckinsale, takes up with his friend Danny.)
To Wallace's credit, there are a few cogent details strewn through the movie: a cameraman's death caught by his own camera; Evelyn using lipstick markings to separate casualties worth saving from likely fatalities; empty Coke bottles collecting blood. And Bay, along with his mastery of the attack scenes, applies some interesting touches like blurry focus to convey the chaos of the post-attack hospital ward.
Leads Affleck, Hartnett and especially Beckinsale all have the right look for the period heroics, but Wallace's by the numbers writing lets them down in the romance department. Cuba Gooding, Jr. turns up as one of the movie's few real-life figures, cook Dorie Miller, one of the first African-Americans honored for valor by the U.S. government, but his scenes, like his character, are segregated from the main action. Alec Baldwin is clearly enjoying his turn as war hero Doolittle, and Jon Voight, encased in latex, brings passion to his portrait of President Roosevelt.
As spectacle, the second half of Pearl Harbor deserves a medal, but there's far less craft apparent in its 4F script.