Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Reader responses added 12/6/01, at the bottom of this page.
Savant just got finished seeing Pearl Harbor, a very nicely-produced DVD. I didn't go to the theater to see it last summer, based, I must admit, on a snob reaction to the eye-catching showoff 'bomb's POV' shot in the trailer ... it represented everything I hate about what CGI effects have done to movies.
Wow. How to begin? This is going to be a very negative review, so let me say that the film did hold my interest all the way. I just kept asking myself, "Could this get worse?", and Pearl Harbor never let me down. And I love war movies, even sappy ones.
Synopsis, with spoilers:
Captains Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) grew up together and became Army Air Corps pilots together. Rafe falls in love with nurse Evelyn Stewart (Kate Beckinsale) just before rushing off to fight as a volunteer pilot in the Battle of Britain, where he's shot down and presumed dead. But Rafe shows up again just as Evelyn discovers she's pregnant by her new love, Danny. The two airmen duke it out and then sleep if off in a car ... the evening of December 6, 1941. There's this war, see: During the attack on Pearl, Rafe and Danny commandeer
the only surviving P40s on Oahu and shoot down a mess'O Jap Zeroes. This qualifies them to now fly B25's on the daring morale-booster mission that was the famous Doolittle Raid.
The trick here will be to simply state what's so offensive about Pearl Harbor without getting cute. It was definitely a success last summer, but not the runaway sockeroo to rival Titanic, the benchmark it obviously strived to pass. Unlike Titanic or American Beauty, there are lots of negative reviews on this picture, so speaking out against it is also no great act of critical bravery. We'll just stick to the facts.
Pearl Harbor's script is unusually bad, finding a trite romantic angle in every situation and compressing the storyline to eliminate all content but 'the good action stuff.' The dialogue throughout is simply dreadful. Some good acting helps the insufferable romantic scenes, but everywhere else you have mouths speaking exposition, exposition,
exposition. Convinced the audience is pretty darn stupid, every plot point is hit upon multiple times. Pilot Danny must explain to Nurse Evelyn and pal Rafe at least six times how Rafe tricked him by going to England voluntarily and not by assignment. For research, it actually looks as if writer Randall Wallace watched Tora! Tora! Tora!., Thirty Seconds over Tokyo and 1941 and dashed the thing off overnight. All the Japanese scenes are a rushed Tora! retread (with identical subtitled dialogue), and the Doolittle raid is also a condensed mini-version of the old Spencer Tracy film.
The misinformation dished out is incredible. P40 fliers switch to B25 light bombers at a moment's notice? Most anyone who could fly after Pearl was sent to Texas to train new pilots. Danny makes an offhand quip about WW2 starting, when it's already been going on for two years, and wasn't really called WW2 yet. The Doolittle Raid was a significant and needed morale booster, but wasn't the turning point of anything, as is implied by the terrible narration given Evelyn near the conclusion. After a show trial, some captured fliers were beheaded by the Japanese army. A couple of planes landed safely in China but most had to ditch or crashed, and only through the help of the fierce Chinese resistance did
so many of the fliers survive. Showing them successfully fighting off Japanese patrols Rambo-style, is ludicrous.
These 'details' aren't the whining of a trivia-hound, the kind who claims, "A real general wouldn't say that!" I'm skipping over the gross anachronisms in dialogue, attitude & gesture (fist-up power salutes?) that riddle the film. This is our history. The makers of A Night to Remember, working 55 years after the sinking of the Titanic, were concerned not to offend the memory of the victims of that disaster. Pearl Harbor follows the ugly lead of Jim Cameron in Titanic through shameless publicity ceremonies dedicating the film to the memory of the defenders of Pearl. What they've made, of course, is a big budget, feel-good circus of a movie that is a consumer product made by people who care only for what will appeal to today's mass audience and its 10-year-old mentality. As for sensitivity to the veterans, we're given a stuttering (pardon, speech-impaired) pilot who at a critcal moment can't sputter out the call to arms, "J-J-J-Japs!" This brings Pearl Harbor down to the Three-Stooges level of 1941, right in its
most serious scene.
1970's Tora! Tora! Tora! is considered by some to be rather dull and academic but it shines in comparison to this epic. Like Titanic, Pearl Harbor simplifies the facts to a 'Little Golden Book' version of history and does a major insult to the men and women who fought and died at Pearl. As stupidly as any rah-rah WW2 morale-boosting programmer, Pearl Harbor's flier officers always have pretty nurses trying to coax them into the sack. The nurses are a selection of dizzy, empty-headed dishes who, 1941-style, swoon over every sailor and flyboy in uniform. Their openness about virginity and sex is highly exaggerated. Real Navy nurses were a tough breed who (by and large) didn't join up with the Armed Forces to get a choice of men to take to bed. The enlisted men pictured are a bunch of slack-jawed hicks or tough monkeys who barely seem able to read or talk, although we know they're just the right kind of stoic cannon-fodder to back up our pilots and make them look good. The WW2 era morale-boosters were purposely made light and silly in the service of vital national interests. Pearl Harbor takes them as How It Was, and adds the ridiculous notion that the military service was one big sex club.
The pilots are shown to be in the Hero business, plain and simple. Our two stars, of course, walk on water and are
surrounded by a secondary chorus of pilots and nurses, who baldly function as comic relief and ego-boosters. Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin, who looks like he's about to break out laughing in every shot) is stuffed with dialogue lines that sounded corny in Dawn Patrol or Captains of the Clouds ages ago. It's the kind of tripe sent up quite well in 1941 and presumed gone forever. For inspiration, we're given empty platitudes. "Land of the free / Home of the Brave", say the kids in the opening scene, and time and again the pilots come out with klunker lines that are supposed to assure us that what's happening is really, really heavy, dude. Nothing even approaches the gravity and meaning of dialogue in a good war movie, like They Were Expendable.
The direction of Michael Bay is not even direction, just a cluster of hyped scenes without feeling, or pace or sensitivity of any kind. Even a lesser Spielberg film has an understanding of how older films worked, but Bay expresses nothing -- zilch. Every image is like a shot in a television commercial -- exact, functional, dead. The camera always moves, every shot is a perfect keeper, and absolutely meaningless. Every shot is a Kodak Moment to the extent that nurse Evelyn can't read a love letter without first getting into another Rita Hayworth proto-bikini and posing amid the rocks on some picturesque Hawaiian beach.
Following the Titanic formula, nothing is more important than the predictable and boring central relationship. Even WW2 flag-waving propaganda stressed teamwork and sacrifice, instead of suggesting that the outcome of civilization
was dependent on the pure patriotic hearts of anointed demigods like Rafe and Evelyn. Michael Bay's obvious referent is Top Gun, where the military, loose women and the flag itself bow to the selfish antics of a spoiled brat pilot with The Right Stuff. America in 1941 wasn't the Warrior Culture it is now. Pearl Harbor plays more like a totalitarian propaganda film, with true-spirited clear-eyed heroes overcoming villainous foes with unquestioning loyalty and frequent injections of righteous values: Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, Right on. Get my plane ready, boys. Let's go give (Hitler/Tojo/Saddam/Osama) his wake-up call.
The amazing effects:
The special effects in Pearl Harbor are breathtaking, very pretty, and fun to watch -- in and of themselves. The planes look great, and the interaction between moving objects and water and smoke, tough media to animate digitally, is splendid.
Too bad the attack sequence is so badly planned and directed. The awesome digital mastershots are all there is. Shots don't build into anything. Planes appear, torpedoes and bombs fall, ships blow up while thousands of ant-like men
scramble for their lives. There's no emotional reaction beyond, 'Wow, that's pretty impressive', unless shots of American Flags in the water bring you to your feet. There's no strategic story being told. Here's where the oft-criticized Tora! Tora! Tora! comes off as brilliant: With very few lines of expository dialogue, it shows the approach of the planes, the panic of the beginning of the attack and the hopeless attempts to save ships or defend them. The strike on the Arizona in Tora! is brilliantly conveyed through editing and miniatures, and details like the shock wave that shakes even the jubilant Japanese attack planes. It's a single mighty blow of gargantuan size, like
the breathtaking broadside that obliterates the Hood in Sink the Bismarck! Here, there's
an impressive animated effect as the Arizona's magazine ignites and literally lifts the ship out of the water, but it comes almost out of nowhere and goes nowhere. It's just another socko shot among many other. We never get the feeling that the Arizona is even a special target.
Filmmaking is emphasis and direction. The CGI animation in Pearl Harbor never seems to be able to go beyond the "Wow!" effect of individual shots, as if competing teams in effects houses were trying to out-do each other. All the flaws of digital magic come through:
1) Action is ridiculously optimized -- we see everything, every detail, always from the perfect angle.
2) This allows every single shot to be aesthetically 'cool' -- regardless of how it fits with the shot before or after.
3) All the unorganized Coolness results in effects for their own, Oscar-reaching sake: We get a great sense of 'being there' but no story is being told and we understand little of what we're seeing except boom, boom, splash, boom. For Japanese tactics (which apparently were superb) we get a wide shot of the harbor with a horde of planes descending, mimicking the 'God's POV' shot from The Birds.
4) With no action story to tell, video-game visuals take over. We zip between ships like the trench divers in Star Wars. The message is that Pearl Harbor is about really cool combat -- we get torpedo points of view, bomb points of view: Exploding planes carom into our faces. Almost no Japanese pilots are shown, but we are continually given their impossible points-of-view. Forget tragedy, iniquity or understanding any of what we're seeing - all we learn is that the Japanese Naval Air Force clearly had the Right Nintendo Stuff, and those lucky enough to be at Pearl had one really cool day, man.
Bay's direction skips over anything 'fact' to concentrate on what know-nothing pubescent males want to see -- grandiose video-game mayhem and kick-ass payback. The camera dwells on Godzilla-scaled wide masters of servicemen scrambling,
swimming, falling and being crushed by the hundreds. The few closeups are reserved for a handful of 'featured stars', like Cuba Gooding Jr. 1 Of course, the real emphasis is given our two flyboys, who are shown taking charge and personally shooting down a score of enemy Zeroes with derring-do that would put The Red Baron and Luke Skywalker to shame. Their real counterparts did tally up a score, by avoiding dogfights and concentrating on the relatively vulnerable enemy bomber squadrons. 2 When our heroes have seemingly chased away the entire attack force, they still have time to give blood and help rescue men trapped in the capsized fleet.
Turning ignominy into victory, through Historical distortion:
Today's cinematic 'kick-ass' imperative requires that no American combat picture can end in defeat, so a jury-rigged mini-version of the Doolittle raid is tacked on to Pearl Harbor, turning what would be two suprisingly dull hours into three (that play like four). 4 The romantic leads worry some more about who's going to survive to raise baby-boomers, and Jon Voight and his rubber chin do a good imitation of
FDR. He does a curious standing-up stunt that smacks far too much of Dr. Strangelove. The problems of fighting a two-front war mean nothing to our man in the White House: He wants a piece of those scurvy Japanese, right now. If James Cameron had followed this logic, Titanic would have ended with jubilant scenes of Zeppelins loading up firebombs, to take revenge against icebergs.
Has this been enough? Too fussy? Too snide? Savant found the lead players attractive, although Kate Beckinsale
was the only actor showing real promise. Hartnet looked cramped, with all the attention going to pretty-boy Affleck. All three are probably perfectly adequate, although Affleck just looks too GQ to be believed, as if he were CGI-spawned himself.
Savant watched Pearl Harbor on DVD, wincing most of the way. Having suffered through Armageddon, I had no problem skipping this in the theater. The best aspect of the DVD is the ability to back up and replay all those CGI effects masters in the attack sequences. They're very detailed. You can pretend that victim number 1,253 falling off the deck or being crushed by the impact of a bomb, is your grandfather who thought he was serving his country instead of
playing a pawn in a cool spectacle. Personally, I've got to find a way to make some screen-grabs of a quick shot showing Hickam Field's 9th Street parade ground, the one with the tall water tower at the end, being strafed. Savant lived right there behind the rows of palm trees from 1958 to '61, when my father was Chief Master Sergeant of the Hickam flight line. It hasn't changed a bit.
Pearl Harbor tells its story terribly. Its only real theme is that America is spoiling to 'kick ass' and be self-righteous about it. Historically, it's one big distortion made with the blessings of Pentagon public relations office. 3 Of all the empty and meaningless Hollywood blockbusters to date, this gets the prize. Savant only hopes Bruckheimer and Bay don't turn their talents toward mythologizing 9.11.01 .... surely someone will, some day.
Touchstone's DVD of Pearl Harbor is a handsome and well-produced package. The stunning, perfectly transferred and digitized feature is spread across two discs, which probably accounts for a better bit rate overall. The only gripe is the subtitles for the Japanese dialogue, which are much too small for any but a large-screen monitor. On a friend's 31-inch tube, they were still unreadable.
The extras are very welcome. A long TV docu about the making of the movie shows every effects shot in the picture twice, but demonstrates that the physical production of the film was just as elaborate as Tora! Tora! Tora! and that many of the impossible-looking airplane stunts were made with real airplanes doing very daring maneuvers. The digital effects are also well-explained, with some of the best shots using huge, full-scale mockups in conjunction with excellent animation. Michael Bay comes off as an efficient organizer of gigantic-scaled action, and Jerry Bruckheimer shows that he has the right stuff marshalling unprecedented cooperation from the military, for which Pearl Harbor is another sure-fire enlistment-booster, like Top Gun.
A second extra is even better, a History Channel 'Unsung Heroes' docu that chronicles all the factual minutia of the attack that Pearl Harbor skates over or misrepresents to concentrate on its audience-friendly stars. It uses every inch of real footage taken that day, but don't be fooled, as some shots are from later in the war, and many others (the ones that look too composed) are reenactments taken from John Ford's wartime Navy docus. They've been shown so many times in conjunction with Dec. 7th ceremonies that they're now taken as bona-fide.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Pearl Harbor, 60th Anniversary Edition rates:
Supplements: Making of Docu, History Channel historical docu, Trailer, Teaser
Packaging: Book-style double disc case
Reviewed: December 4, 2001
1. In Tora!, the black cook character (Dorie Miller?) simply appears on deck of the Arizona to man a gun, and is blown to kingdom come with the rest of his mates. He's just one of many important and significant details in a much larger spectacle.
2. Tora! almost overstates this Pearl 'sideshow' as well, but has the taste to leave the two outgunned P40 pilots up in the clouds, their fates undecided. The half-dozen planes that got off the ground on Dec 7 found themselves up against a hundred Japanese fighter escorts, veterans of combat over China, where they fought experienced Flying Tigers.
3. The Japanese never attacked the many naval oil storage tanks around Pearl Harbor. If they had just bypassed the harbor and blown up those millions of gallons of fuel, every ship in the fleet, even the carriers that escaped attack would have been rendered useless. Getting sufficient fuel from Texas would have taken forever. The US Navy wouldn't have been ready to undertake Midway or Guadalcanal, or anything, for a year. The Japanese could have taken Australia and Hawaii without much of a fight. This was gone over in an old NOVA docu on the attack. It's the kind of detail that makes history fascinating, but Pearl Harbor can't be bothered with the incredible ironies of reality, just stupid kid games.
4. Is this the 'lesson' learned from Tora! Tora! Tora!? Did that movie fail to become profitable because it stuck to the painful facts about Pearl Harbor, and had a feel-bad ending?
The mailbag feedback, 12/5, 12/6:
So, Glenn, stop beating around the bush: How do you REALLY feel about Pearl Harbor? - Gary Teetzel
You got so many points spot on. I congratulate you on your review. I took my father to this movie, as he studied Pearl Harbor for years. I warned him, "This is Michael Bay trying to make another Titanic, he wants money and is going to try and cater this to as many people as possible." He didn't know who Michael Bay was, and so shrugged it off. When the movie started and that horrible opening scene spouted off its empty American propoganda, he just said, "Oh no."
Unfortunately, so many people enjoy empty patriotism, and that's why this movie didn't do as badly as it should have.
Don't forget other huge facts they skipped, such as Russia not being in the war yet, or the dogfighting in England happening during the time that the Germans had decided to start bombing during night. Don't forget the cliched predictablity. How could someone with half a brain not realise that the painter's ladder was going to fall? That Affleck wasn't really dead?
This might not be the worst film made, but it's my least favorite. Some films are just bad because they don't suit my tastes, lack of budget or other problems. This film was bad because it was purposly constructed this way. In my book, that gives it the worst movie title. Thank you for your wonderful review. - 'BizRodian'
Dear Glenn: Possibly the best review of this film I've seen. You were too kind to Affleck, though. And, I detected considerable overpraise for Bay's direction; careful, here.
Remembering the enormous efforts expended by Fox in Hawaii, Japan, DC and Pico Blvd in the lengthy production of Tora!, I must take some issue with your observation that "the physical production of the film was just as elaborate as 'Tora! Tora! Tora!'" I doubt this. This is a big picture, but not that big.
I have grudgingly revised my opinion of the career of Richard Fleischer; at one point, I sincerely believed that he was possibly the worst major contract studio director in the history of Hollywood. He isn't that bad. His early RKO films are taut and intelligent, and he directed a little 1954 opus for an indie producer that at times I still spontaneously refer to as "the greatest movie ever made!" (Savant note: must be Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)
He's Stanley Kubrick compared to Michael Bay, though.
But it's Fleischer's fault, I think, that Tora! is so dull. Even if one concedes that the script isn't crammed with crisp, no-nonsense dialogue, there are far too many scenes in which pretty good actors behave as though Fox had borrowed 'em from Gerry Anderson. All right -- we know what's going to happen at the end of the movie -- but the director can't generate any suspense or tension at all. (The Japanese helmers had a lot more success with effective
storytelling.) Did the word come down to avoid characterization? Most of the interior sets look surprisingly cheap -- and Pauline Kael gleefully pointed out the moment when a character gestured to something though a patently artificial painted window.
Bay and his stooges, er, creative associates, had to avoid the awful impression left at the end of Tora! -- and at the end of 12-7-41, for that matter. I still remember a perplexed middle-aged man standing up as the credits rolled after a roadshow performance of Tora! back in 1970. "That's IT?" he said, with some disappointment.
The Longest Day is a movie about triumph, based on a famed work of non-fiction that chronicled and celebrated that incredible day in June of 1944. Tora!, "documentary- like," is less anecdotal or even contextual about its subject; it's almost a mega-budget effects movie with the "book" scenes shot by Jack Webb. There's no Ryan book to give some ideas on structure or storytelling guidance. And there's no Darryl Zanuck supervising every aspect of the picture.
DFZ, of course, was chairman of the board back in NY. He and son Dick arranged for the Fox board to approve the movie's production. But they didn't make the film. Fleischer and producer Elmo Williams did. Even looking back on the many scabrous and nihilistic films of 1970 -- my favorite year! -- no movie of that season ended quite so negatively as Tora! We fumble the ball! We get our tails whacked! Our fleet is destroyed! And, IT'S OUR FAULT!
Great. Kids demonstrating against the war were getting killed, the President was expanding the war -- and Fox has spent $28 million in mostly pre-inflation bucks to tell us, uh, by the way, we let Pearl Harbor happen. By comparison, Five Easy Pieces has a happy ending. Hell, Beneath the Planet of the Apeshas a happier ending!
Anyway, for Tora! to work as a film -- and not simply a brilliantly staged, cut, designed and choreographed invasion sequence, well worth the price of admission even in Fox's grainy 70mm roadshow prints [Williams had been an Oscar-winning editor] -- it had to be, well, better. Involving. A little non-hokey human interaction -- even between officers. Something.
Not bringing in Doolittle/Tokyo hooey like Pearl Harbor, though. The plot of this stupid, stupid movie is so ridiculous and even offensive that I salute you for writing a review free of profanity. [I couldn't have managed it.] Suffice it to say that the story of this thing reminds me of listening to a kid telling a whopper in the schoolyard; after a while, you've got to protest, and the kid says: "Were you there? Did you see it? Go ahead, prove me wrong."
Nice points. Best, Always. -- B
Glenn, I thoroughly enjoy reading your column, and I agree 100% with your comments about Pearl Harbor. I am however mystified by one point. You said in one section: "Let's go give (Hitler/Churchill/Tojo/Saddam/Osama) his wake-up call." I don't understand why you included Churchill in the same breath as these dictators/nutcases. The US and the UK were allies during WW2 and, as a Brit, I am offended by the implication here, unless I am misunderstanding your point.
Thanks. - Nigel Pond
Dear Glenn, I am a Brit who has been reading your Savant features for many years now, for the most part enjoying your objective views and insights. I am also someone who doesn't go for this use of capital letters and exclamation marks in e-mails, to try to make the mail "speak." BUT IN THIS CASE I AM GOING TO DO IT!!!! THIS TIME, IN YOUR REVIEW OF "PEARL HABOUR" YOU HAVE GIVEN ME, AT LEAST, A HIGHLY OBJECTIONABLE 'INSIGHT'!! WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN BY THIS:
"Let's go give (Hitler/Churchill/Tojo/Saddam/Osama) his wake-up call. "
HOW DARE YOU PUT CHURCHILL IN THAT LIST????? ARE YOU YANKS REALLY SO BADLY EDUCATED ABOUT EVENTS OUTSIDE THE US?
OK, I'm coming back to earth now. I just can't believe you did that. And you who admits to watching BBC World to get a better view of World events. I expect some form of apology in your next post. More words fail me. Regards - Jack Woollven
(Savant Note: to Jack and Nigel, my apologies. I should have put more Allied names on the list or left
Churchill's out. My intention was to say that The flyboy heroes in Pearl Harbor were presented like Nazi propaganda heroes, just as in Starship Troopers: No morals, just empty patriotism and 'the correct blood' so to speak. The 'wakeup call' reference is to the Gulf War, and I was feebly trying to make a point (and dumbly only going halfway) that we are in a Warrior Culture, where dealing out mass death and destruction can be treated as an offhand joke. This of course unnecessarily opens up another can of worms that hasn't that much to do with
Pearl Harbor. I've dropped Churchill's name, and ask you to accept my apology for disturbing you - it wasn't my intention)
Hi Glenn, From someone based in the UK, I'd just like to say how much I've enjoyed reading your columns. Your review of Pearl Harbor was spot on, especially your comments on Michael Bay's 'direction'. I had to watch Armageddon via the Fast Forward button, and even then through gritted teeth, and that was after just 20 mins. Best wishes from across the pond. - Rob
Glenn: Michael Bay and James Cameron are in fact COLLABORATING on a film about 9/11. (Like The Towering Inferno, which was too big for one studio, the 9/11 massacre apparently requires two ridiculous egos to get it right.)
As it presently stands (still in treatment), the story will focus on a New York City cop who
can't get his bosses or the CIA to believe what he alone has figured out: that the baddies
are planning to fly two jets into the WTC. He goes rogue, and boards one of the doomed jets
himself hoping to foil the terrorists' operation. Meanwhile, coincidentally, his girlfriend
is aboard the other doomed jet (she is hoping to surprise him in San Francisco, where he has
falsely told her he is going, so that she won't worry that he is on a likely suicide mission to
foil the hijacking)
Once aboard the plane, though, Our Hero calls his girlfriend by cel phone to tell her that
he's on a hijacked plane and is going to try to take out the bad guys, and learns only then that
she's on what he knows (but she doesn't, yet) to be the other hijacked plane. By this time,
his plane is streaking towards the WTC, and he doesn't have time to BOTH warn her and save
his own plane...and it's not clear that warning her would do any good anyway... The planned
three hour epic will focus on the ill-fated couple's last cel phone conversation, and the
rollercoaster-like swerving of the two planes in their twenty-minute flights between all the
buildings in Manhattan as our hero and his girlfriend, each on their own separate airliner,
attempt to wrest control of the planes from the hijackers. Cameron has indicated that, as
with Titanic, historical accuracy will be at a premium, and has even gone so far as
to make sure that genuine American Airlines china and tableware will be shown in use
by the terrorists in their seats in First Class.
Okay, so I'm making this up. But I'll bet I'm not all that far off. - A
(Savant note: I include this note in terrible taste because while first reading it I believed
every word ... proving that my tendency to think the worst of Hollywood could use some trimming,
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson
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