Touchstone Pictures // 2001 // 184 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Deren Ney (Retired) // July 8th, 2002
"The Japanese are expecting a war. Should we?"
History re-sweeps itself courtesy of Michael Bay, as a saccharine but eye-pleasing treatment is given to "a day that will live in infamy." When Pearl Harbor arrived in theaters, it was roundly criticized for being hokey, overly sincere, and overblown, and for failing to bring any resonance to the event itself. The R-rated Pearl Harbor: Director's Cut release is an improvement over the PG-13 Pearl Harbor: 60th Anniversary Edition, adding considerable gore and new scenes. There are four discs in the set, which provide a wealth of historical information much needed to complete the impact of Pearl Harbor that the movie failed to capture. The film on its own is forgettable, but as a DVD experience, it's impressive enough to warrant purchase.
Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) are fighter pilots who become involved in a love triangle with a young comely nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale.) The three are entangled against the backdrop of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the event which triggered the US involvement in World War II. Rafe and Evelyn meet when she fudges an eye exam to let him keep his pilot wings. Cute (?) They become soul mates, naturally, until Rafe leaves for a dangerous mission overseas. He leaves Danny and Evelyn behind to serve his country, and when Rafe is reported shot down, said best friend and girlfriend shack up (I guess Evelyn isn't kidding when she tells Danny during the physical, "You'll wait your turn"). Rafe, to no one's surprise, is alive, and when he returns there's tension with the three. Their differences must be put aside for duty, however, when Pearl Harbor is attacked. The movie concludes with the brave US response attack led by real-life WWII hero Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle (Alec Baldwin, channeling Charlton Heston.)
Pearl Harbor wants. It wants to be taken seriously. It wants to be funny. It wants to be the most kick-ass action movie you've ever seen. But it also wants to warm the hearts of you and your date. It wants to recall the personality of old Hollywood films, and it wants to recall Saving Private Ryan. What it never wants, and what weighs the film down in the end, is to tell anything about the real people or events of Pearl Harbor. It parades as if it does, with the actors trying to mimic the cadences and personality of people in that era. But the characters are ultimately designed to appeal to 13-year-olds, and this does not serve the film well. Everyone onscreen is far too confident about far too little. The behind the scenes team, however, can be as cocky as they like, because the visual and sound elements (aside from Hans Zimmer's awful Top Gun score) are unfailingly impressive.
The movie opens with childhood friends Rafe and Danny pretending to be pilots -- and then actually piloting a crop-duster, to the dismay of Danny's hayseed father. Apparent from the first shot are the agitating camera moves that refuse to be on any setting besides "drift too fast." Rafe is such a standup kid that he protects Danny from his abusive father with a 2x4. The father is portrayed by the Kevin Bacon of the new millennium, William Fichtner (Armageddon, The Perfect Storm). (Mark my words, in 20 years kids will be playing Six Degrees of William Fichtner.) His dimestore-Deliverance performance as Danny's farmer father competes for silliness with his own cheesy "rural" false teeth, and it's not clear who the winner is. The loser, however, is the audience, who has to endure another hour and a half of this type of banality before reaching the exciting attack sequence, and then be dragged through another hour of dreck to arrive at the stunning, but weightless, finale.
Pearl Harbor shamelessly follows in the tracks of Titanic, but only far enough to bring it to memory, without achieving a whiff of that film's affection for its characters. Affleck is tanned and tailored as Rafe, the sun always shining on him, but we never believe for a second that he's a pilot, or southern. Hartnett overcomes his John Conner bangs to be believable as a soldier, but by the time his affair with Evelyn begins, we see Danny as a farm boy who'd rather whoop at a healthy-looking horse than make love on a parachute (in what has to be one of the silliest, most unromantic scenes of its kind, and a shameless rip-off of Titanic's back-seat romp). Beckinsale is fetching but bland as the object of their affections, and the love each of these men have for Evelyn is never justified by anything we see from her onscreen. Her character depths are only hinted at by the fact that she looks like Ma Bell's hot granddaughter, and has an iron will that Rosie the Riveter would admire. The movie operates under the notion that these are people who we will fall in love with, but unfortunately, the chemistry and emotion was more believable between Leon and Julie in The Ladies Man.
The tragedy of Titanic was random and singular, and the romance worked as the story's focus because there was no iceberg plotting to pierce the ship's hull, no need to consider how the sinking would impact the outside world. Pearl Harbor makes its most fatal mistake in taking this same approach to a story in history which, dramatically, hinges on context. The romance places its characters in a vacuum of sappy, insincere, and self-absorbed emotion, and then asks us to care when they endure an event which the movie barely orients us to. It feels like it was written with a wink and a nudge as if to say, "The kids are going to love this," instead of something anyone who's had as much as a cordial relationship with their mailman could identify with as a romance, or anyone who's watched PBS three times could see as informative. No adult working on this production could have gone home at night feeling like they were conveying anything close to real emotion, and in a movie that ostensibly pays tribute to the people who survived Pearl Harbor, giving such short shrift to the depth of their relationships is a shame. From the eye-roll-worthy meeting between Rafe and Evelyn, to Danny and Evelyn's (in Affleck's words) "Calvin Klein commercial" love scenes, to the ridiculously lines striving to be quoted across junior highs everywhere, this film misses opportunity after opportunity to connect with the audience. Watching it, you can almost hear the sigh of veterans wondering how such a catastrophic event in their lives could be so trivialized by this careless story (the filmmaker's dispute this in the commentary tracks, describing encounters with veterans moved by the film). I'm hardly a dialogue or story snob, but when Bruce Willis' last-minute martyr move in Armageddon has more emotional resonance than a three-hour-plus love story about one of history's most significant events, you're in trouble.
Detailing the plot of this movie required watching it a couple of times, which is not a good sign for a movie rooted in familiar history. Partly to blame is the bombastic tone of every shot and music cue. Bay emphasizes a row of trees or Rafe picking up his suitcase as being equally dramatic to any of the brief, simplistic scenes involving the Japanese plotting their attack, taking away any sense of dynamics the limp script might have had if it would just sit still for a second. He films even the simplest message-runner as a hero, and uses more ankle-level shots in this movie than they had in Gulliver's Travels.
The details of what led to the attack are startlingly sparse, especially when it comes to criticizing Japan, and it makes the attack look like a necessary military move by Japan, instead of the dirty pool that it was. On the commentary tracks, the filmmakers blame the public's lack of knowledge about the event for why people were confused and even offended by the film. What they don't seem to acknowledge is that the younger people who don't know their history were exactly the audience they aimed for with the forced love story, and that the film needed to work on that level if it was going to forsake the historical element as much as it did. As it stands, if you don't know your history, you won't learn anything, and if you do know your history, you can't help but laugh at the story it's depicted through.
I think of all the scrambling to be more politically correct in the wake of the sensitive national climate, and how the makers of Pearl Harbor would be in quite a fix if they were releasing the movie now. It might be embraced for its jingoism, but the human story would never hold water. In Bay's commentary track (see below), he notes that it's 250 hours after the 9/11 attack, and he seems genuinely shaken. I couldn't help but wonder what kind of film Pearl Harbor would have been if Bay had understood the gravity of this kind of event better when making it. Perhaps it would be a more defiant film, a more jarring statement about an incomprehensible atrocity that was as much of a violation as this country had ever seen before 9/11. As it stands, it's just the Empire attacking the Rebel base, with a love story that makes Attack of the Clones look like Splendor in the Grass.
The movie is gorgeous to look at, even with those sweeps and rapid cuts. The widescreen presentation is nice, but there's edge enhancement and pixelation where there shouldn't be. I was surprised, but despite this, it's one of the best movies visually that DVD could ask for. The kind of onscreen nirvana seen here is not reached merely through computer effects and spending money. It takes a true understanding of film craft. In this sense, Pearl Harbor is amazing, and worth seeing for that reason alone. This film is split on two discs, which normally bothers me, but here it's perfect for watching the different sets of the film's visual treats. If the production couldn't afford working on the script, every penny shows in the effects sequences. Unlike much of the current CGI that goes for spectacle over realism (Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone, Spider-Man), this film aims for photo-realism and achieves it. Though the overly operatic nature had me half expecting John Woo doves, every shot looks genuinely captured on film, despite our knowledge that we're watching largely digital magic. A true achievement in mixing CGI with live action. Bay should start taking the across-the-board criticisms of his inability to tell a story to heart, because his visuals are so enticing in sequences like this that even a moderately engrossing storyline could make his films a real treat.
The best thing this boxed set does is fill in much of the historical information that should have found its way into the movie, via its impressive bonus materials. There's an interactive timeline that consists of documentaries about the entire history of the conflict between the US and Japan, from the early 1800s until the attack. These examine the political and cultural differences between these two nations which eventually poised them for war. They're a little brief, but that's nitpicking, because this set goes much further than it needs to. It's fascinating stuff, especially the sections on the 19th century. The History Channel specials are excellent resources, and I'd recommend watching them before watching the film if you're coming to it cold. You might wish more of it were in the movie, but without knowing it at all, you're stuck with that love story. There is even an audio recreation of one nurse's memories from that day, accompanied by a montage of related imagery.
The behind-the-scenes footage also surprises with its candor and depth, particularly the Soldier's Boot Camp documentary which shows the actors exhausted and humiliated during preproduction for the film. I always thought these things were a joke, a vacation that gave the actors something to say on the press tour. But this looks like it was hell, and watching it elicits more respect for the actors. It also confirms what many have suspected: Affleck is kind of a bitch. The movie's astonishing effects are also detailed on the bonus discs, from the initial crude animatics to the final product. The video conversation with Bay and the effects supervisor is laid back and informative, and highlights Bay's talent for striking (if pointless) visuals. We also get to see entire animatics sequences that will delight anyone wondering how all the elements come together for a movie this visually powerful.
In English, the audio features a DTS 5.1 track and a preview of the new Dolby "headphone track" technology in English, as well as Dolby Digital 5.1 for both English and Spanish. I only sampled the headphone track for a few scenes, but I was impressed with it and would love to see this on more features that require loudness to fully appreciate, for those late nights when the neighbors won't stand for it. There is little difference between the 5.1 mixes, and they are both fantastic. This is seriously system-shaking stuff. There are many organic and engaging sounds to be found, and the clarity and precision is masterfully matched with onscreen action. If only we could remove the awful, washed-out score.
Bay's commentary track is interesting. He speaks with his film professor, and they manage to successfully defend some things about the film that I didn't like (the infamous boys-playing-baseball-at-7:00AM shot, which looked like a ridiculous Pepsi ad, was based on a real account). Bay also dances admirably around the fact that he wanted to make a harder-edged movie, but couldn't if he wanted to have the budget he needed to pull off the film's action sequences. This Director's Cut is noticeably bloodier and more visceral, but hearing Bay's comments it's tough not to wonder how this film might have turned out if he could have excised the romance entirely, in favor of more history surrounding the attack.
The track with Affleck, Hartnett, Baldwin, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer is the most entertaining. Their lack of pretense about the film is appreciated. Affleck is funny and unapologetic in his criticism of the film, pointing out Bay's senselessly "stylized" wet floors inside the airplane hangars and the overuse of music and camera moves to hammer home a point. Everyone is well-informed, particularly Baldwin, who should have had his own track. The production track is occasionally congratulatory, but the participants are enthusiastic and entertaining. They also give their gripes about the movie, and manage to make fun of Dan Aykroyd's waistline. It's a fun track that completes the picture of the process behind making the film. Hans Zimmer however, like his score, annoys throughout.
It's also worth noting what a cool case this edition comes in. It's a reproduction of a soldier's journal, complete with a letter containing the famous FDR quote the soldier's were given to boost morale. Unlike the movie, it has a sense of historical reverence and understatement. Case-wise, it's on par with classics like the foam Evil Dead: Book Of The Dead edition or Terminator 2: Ultimate Edition tin. (Any other good cases you've seen? Let us know in the Jury Room.)
Everyone comes down hard on this film for not being worthy of the event of Pearl Harbor, and it isn't. But if you're a real bastard like me, you can pretend it's about something else, and enjoy it as sort of a prequel to Independence Day.
Pearl Harbor is exactly what it wanted to be visually, and exactly what it deserved to be dramatically. The feeling of manipulation is palpable, and it is particularly unsettling in a time when people are gaining a new appreciation for just how grave a day like Dec. 7, 1941 was for those who lived through it. If you're looking for a passionate love triangle, Three Amigos had more chemistry and heat. But if you're looking for a DVD with awesome effects sequences, state-of-the-art sound, and just about all the media on filmmaking and Pearl Harbor you could ask for in the bonus features, Pearl Harbor: The Director's Cut is for you.
Like the theatrical release, Pearl Harbor: The Director's Cut is guilty of being a (brace yourself) "Bore-a! Bore-a! Bore-a!," but the added "Gore-a! Gore-a! Gore-a!" and "Lore-a! Lore-a! Lore-a!" make this DVD edition worth picking up.
Review content copyright © 2002 Deren Ney; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 184 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Michael Bay
* Commentary by Hans Zimmer, Director of Photography John Schwartzman, Production Designer Nigel Phelps, and Costume Designer Michael Kaplan
* Commentary by Jerry Bruckheimer and Actors Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett, and Alec Baldwin
* "Journey to the Screen: the Making of Pearl Harbor"
* "The Surprise Attack" Multi-Angle Breakdown with Intro by Michael Bay
* Interviews with Veterans
* Pearl Harbor Historic Timeline
* Soldier's Boot Camp
* "One Hour Over Tokyo" History Channel Documentary
* "Unsung Heroes" History Channel Documentary
* Super-8 Montage
* Deconstructing Destruction
* National Geographic: Remembering Pearl Harbor
* U.S. Navy Pearl Harbor FAQ
* USS Arizona Memorial