The movie Pearl Harbor (2001) should not be called “Pearl Harbor.” My annoyance with this film stems not so much from historical inaccuracies (though there are plenty of those), and more from its length and pacing. I get that a film typically does not launch into its proposed subject matter right away. Characters need to be introduced, the plot needs to have a purpose, and generally it needs to make the basics understood at the outset. The best pieces of cinema can do this from just a shot or two at the beginning. Take Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, for example. When we see the giant Star Destroyer running down the puny Rebel Corellian Corvette, it says everything you need to know about the state of the galaxy, especially after the opening crawl. I guess the one positive thing you can say about the first forty-five minutes (yes, forty-five) is that it is a miracle that there are no explosions considering it was directed by noted detonation enthusiast Michael Bay.
After all, it would have been inappropriate if there had been some kind of major blast early on in Pearl Harbor since it deals with main characters Rafe McCauley (as a boy, Jesse James, as a man, Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (as a boy, Reiley McClendon, and as a man, Josh Hartnett) as adolescents. I imagine, though, that Michael Bay was just itching to blow up the biplane Rafe and Danny almost take off in as it bounced down a rural Tennessee runway. At least it establishes their love of flying. Next there follows a brief and seemingly out of place newsreel style historical update as to the rise of fascism in Germany. You might say, wait a second, is this not a World War II flick? Why would such a moment be out of place? Because they do not do that again for the rest of the film. Might that not have been helpful in explaining the situation in Japan since that is who they will eventually fight? That conflict does not happen until nearly halfway through the film, but I am getting ahead of myself. Unsurprisingly, the two childhood friends decide to enter the Army Air Corps (there was no separate Air Force at this time) together, and during their physical Rafe meets Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), a nurse for the American military. Listen, movie, these people served in distinct branches, but please, go ahead and live in your fantasy world where your characters can serve wherever the script calls for them to be. At any rate, Rafe and Evelyn inevitably and rather quickly (they are only together for a month at this point) fall madly in love but then Rafe leaves for England to volunteer for the Royal Air Force’s Eagle squadron. For a group of fighter pilots that is supposedly made up flyers from the United States, he appears to be the only American in it. Meanwhile, both Danny and Evelyn get reassigned to the idyllic (for the time being) Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Finally we get to the setting that inspired the movie. Just the setting. The actual attack does not come for another forty-five minutes as we muddle through Rafe’s missions in the Battle of Britain and Danny and Evelyn believing that their friend dies in that conflict. With Rafe supposedly out of the picture, Danny and Evelyn get together, a coupling that results in a pregnancy. After a sleep-inducing hour and half, punctuated with some brief moments of dogfighting, the film begins to snap out of its slumber. Rafe shows up in Pearl Harbor, suddenly a part of the Army Air Corps again, the day before the Japanese attack. Rafe and Danny exchange blows, and then wake up the next morning and manage to be the only two American planes that make it into the air during that infamous day on December 7th, 1941. You might think this would be the perfect time to end the film, with maybe a post-battle scene of the lifelong friends making amends. You would be wrong, though, because there is still an hour left! Sigh. So our glorious president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Jon Voight, and no relation in case you were wondering) then delivers his well-known speech and tells his military people that he wants to bomb Japan. And guess who is recruited to do so? Actually, it is the famous pilot Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin), but he taps our two protagonists to be a part of his raid. It is a mission that no one is going to return from, at least not directly. After dropping their payloads on Tokyo, they must attempt to fly to China and hopefully find friendly forces. Rafe and Danny make it there, but unfortunately crash land near a Japanese patrol. Danny dies saving Rafe, and Rafe returns to reunite with Evelyn and raise Danny’s child. Weird.
It is this love triangle between Rafe, Danny, and Evelyn that angers me the most about Pearl Harbor. Had this whole aspect been at least toned down a bit, and it actually focused on the subject matter in the title, you would have had something for this reviewer. This brings me back to my original point, that it should not be called what it is. Is there some metaphor that I am missing? Was Michael Bay trying to echo Pat Benatar’s sentiments in “Love is a Battlefield?” And yet, in spite of one barroom brawl, Rafe and Danny seem to put aside their differences without too much fuss. The person I identify most with among the three is Rafe. He does the noble thing by volunteering for the Eagle Squadron, and returned after a few months believing that those he cared about most would still be there for him as he left them. But Danny and Evelyn thought him dead, and this part is never explained. There is no letter from a branch of the service saying he went down. There is no scene where Danny reads a list of casualties in the Battle of Britain. In short, there is nothing to suggest anything had happened to Rafe other than we, the viewers, seeing his plane go down. Hence, Danny and Evelyn had no reason to think anything is amiss, unless they had been watching the movie along with us. This is not me making a mountain out of a mole hill. It is a major plot point that goes off without a word spoken, just a look from Danny to Evelyn. Cinematically appealing, perhaps, but it makes no stinking sense, and if I were Rafe I would be a lot more pissed off. Maybe he had been watching the movie too and knew that they were working on assumptions?
There is one good theme in Pearl Harbor worth nothing, and that is the volunteer spirit. When we look back at the people that fought World War II, at least here in the United States, they have been described as the “Greatest Generation.” Part of why they earn that title is because of their willingness to serve, to go where asked and to do what was demanded of them. As somebody who has worked in Catholic parishes, I greatly appreciate those who come forward when called upon. To be fair, this is not something unique to my Faith, but it is the one with which I have the most experience. It speaks to the way people respond to a higher cause, whether it is defeating the evil that is fascism or helping lead their fellow man closer to God. Pearl Harbor is replete with examples of this resolve, from Rafe going to England to him and Danny offering their blood at the hospital in Pearl Harbor in the wake of the attack. It is that spirit that won World War II, and I hope there is enough of it around still to keep the Catholic Church until Kingdom come.
When I watch movies as bad as Pearl Harbor, particularly if that awfulness gets going from the get-go, I start making fun of it. This film provides fertile ground for cracks and inappropriate spots for laughter. The one that got me most was when Danny gets on the phone with Japanese Zeroes buzzing overhead and exclaims to the person on the other end that World War II had just started. I laughed for a few minutes over that line. In all seriousness, there are few good films about that memorable day in 1941, though I would not be surprised if there is one that I am not remembering. If you must watch it, fast forward to the Battle of Britain scenes and the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. Those action sequences are the best parts. The rest is a load of crap.