[Screen It]

(2001) (Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale) (PG-13)

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Drama/Action: The lives of two pilots and the one nurse they both love become tangled and then changed forever when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
It's 1941, most of the world is at war, and Rafe McCawley (BEN AFFLECK) and Danny Walker (JOSH HARTNETT) are lifelong friends who grew up together and are now pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. While Danny is somewhat reserved, Rafe is charmingly cocky, a factor that not only wins the heart of Navy nurse Evelyn Johnson (KATE BECKINSALE), but also draws the attention of James H. Doolittle (ALEC BALDWIN), a forty-five-year-old officer who informs the young pilot that he's been accepted to join Britain's RAF in fighting the Germans.

Thus, while Danny and his comrades, including Red (EWEN BREMNER), head off to be stationed in Pearl Harbor, as do Evelyn and fellow nurses Betty (JAMES KING), Barbara (CATHERINE KELLNER) and Sandra (JENNIFER GARNER), Rafe ends up in a European dogfight where he's shot down and reportedly killed in action.

As Danny comforts Evelyn in her time of grief over that news, little does anyone know that Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (MAKO) is planning a surprise attack on the Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. That's despite the efforts of Navy Department cryptologist Captain Thurman (DAN AYKROYD) who tries to convince President Roosevelt (JON VOIGHT) and others that an attack may be imminent.

Danny and Evelyn unexpectedly become lovers, a point that becomes complicated when Rafe suddenly reappears on the scene. Before they can resolve their romantic triangle, however, the Japanese attack Pearl, and the three, among with many others including Doris "Dorie" Miller (CUBA GOODING, JR.), a navy cook, and Earl (TOM SIZEMORE), an airfield mechanic, find themselves suddenly thrust into WWII.

As Danny and Rafe eventually take to the air to battle the Japanese fighters and Evelyn tends to the many wounded who come streaming into her hospital, the three try to sort out their romantic quandary, all while dealing with the aftermath of the attack that includes Doolittle leading a top secret retaliatory mission over Tokyo.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Although it's not above Hollywood to take just about any story or subject matter - fictional or not - and use it in an attempt to entertain and make a few bucks, there are times when the great moviemaking machine shows some reverence, especially when the material at hand is universally sensitive (such as when dealing with rape, AIDS or the Holocaust) or has a deep common root in a nation's psyche (such as with natural disasters and wars).

That's particularly true for the latter when many lives are lost or the wounds of defeat are still not quite healed or forgotten. Perhaps that's why only one motion picture of a serious vein, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" has been made specifically about the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in early December of 1941 (while a few others, such as 1953's "From Here to Eternity" and 1980's "The Final Countdown" have used it as a backdrop or flight of fancy).

Released in 1970, the Oscar winning film was a large-scale production that thoroughly recreated the events leading up to that fateful December morning. Yet, it came off as more of a stiff, encyclopedic approach at storytelling rather than something that could be called engaging, let alone entertaining. The prevailing contemporary notion of the latter concept is probably what has various people concerned over the release of "Pearl Harbor," a three hour epic that's been carefully calculated and designed to be this summer's surefire box office hit.

While some may have had similar reservations about "Saving Private Ryan," it, of course, was directed by Steven Spielberg - who had already proven he could be as reverent as they come with "Schindler's List" after his WWII comedy "1941" - and went on to great public and critical acclaim.

On the other hand, this film - with its reported budget being somewhere north of $130 million - is helmed by the filmmaking duo of director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the team responsible for such high-octane, testosterone-laced hits such as "Bad Boys," "The Rock" and "Armageddon." While entertaining - at least to varying degrees - in an action sense, the films weren't particularly noted for their subtlety, absolute realism or character and story depth or development.

Accordingly, while most everyone is probably in agreement that the sequences involving the attack on Pearl Harbor will be big, loud and explosive, there's that pesky, underlying worry that the rest of the film - i.e. the human drama and inevitable romances - won't be as impressive or pack as much firepower.

Having just experienced the film - and that's probably the most accurate description that can be given to watching it - I can tell you that such a pre-viewing assessment is correct, even if the non-combat moments aren't quite as cringe-inducing bad as some might expect and don't make the film feel too much longer than the one hundred and eighty some minute runtime.

That said, if "Tora! Tora! Tora!" was the flat and staid encyclopedic approach at telling the historic tale, this film feels like the highly caffeinated Cliff Notes version. Various necessary and relevant historical facts - such as the Japanese staging and planning of the attack, the misinterpretation of the radar reading of the incoming planes, the close proximity of the U.S planes on the airfields, etc. - are dropped in as momentary bits of exposition. While those without much knowledge of the real life events won't get much of an in-depth history lesson here, they will learn how to write dialogue that's best described as trite and far too "on the nose."

The script by screenwriter Randall Wallace ("Braveheart," "The Man In the Iron Mask") zips through both time and historical events, resulting in an episodic and disjointed feel that permeates much of the proceedings and robs the film of any sort of momentum whenever the wartime action isn't occurring. It certainly doesn't help that the film covers a span of time ranging from nearly a year before the attack until Col. Doolittle's famous retaliatory raid on Japan in April 1942.

While that gives the film its epic feel and stature, the various events don't feel overly congruous beyond our hindsight obviously tying them together. The actual attack - which lasts for what seems like at least a speedy half hour - occurs in the middle of everything and since most everyone knows it's coming, there's obviously no surprise to its appearance or outcome.

Nevertheless, and since they know that it's the disaster the audience wants to see - as was the case in "Titanic," a film this effort shamelessly emulates in more ways than one - Bay and company have made sure to satiate the audience's appetite for and anticipation of the pivotal moment. While not of the "you are there" battle approach that Spielberg utilized so effectively in "Ryan," this film delivers war footage that's far more grandiose in scale and scope.

The effects - courtesy of visual effects supervisors Eric Brevig & Ed Hirsh ("Men in Black," "Wild Wild West"), special effects coordinator John Frazier ("Cast Away," "The Perfect Storm") and the team at Industrial Light & Magic - are amazing to behold (even if one knows or at least senses that they're computer generated). The entire attack sequence is nothing short of riveting and completely engrossing to behold, although it doesn't contain the emotional resonance that Spielberg's Normandy staging clearly possessed. Even so, the big money shot is following a bomb down from its plane through the deck of the U.S.S Arizona where it then explodes and takes out the ship in graphic, CGI detail.

Of course, that sequence and another battle one late in the film only compromise a minority percentage of the overall proceedings. To fill in the rest of the time and give the film a human element, the filmmakers have opted to drop in a young romance angle, or triangle if you will, in an attempt not only to give the viewer someone to care about amidst the mayhem, but also to rather blatantly copy the successful formula that drove teenagers into an attendance fury and "Titanic" into the box office record books.

Unfortunately, the romance here isn't as successful either in concept or execution as occurred with Leo and Kate in James Cameron's film. Not only are the three central performers -- Ben Affleck ("Bounce," "Armageddon"), Josh Hartnett ("Here on Earth," "Halloween: H20") and Kate Beckinsale ("The Golden Bowl," "Brokedown Palace") - saddled with having to deliver some lame, contrived and at times absolutely awful dialogue, but they must also embody characters and that "Titanic" style relationship (two young men after the same young woman) that feels like a cumulative cliché of most every wartime romance ever filmed.

While the performances are generally okay, if occasionally hackneyed (thanks to the script and ham-fisted direction), and Beckinsale looks as if she was lifted from the era (or at least an actress playing such a part from that era) even if she's really just playing a variation of the Liv Tyler part from "Armageddon" (watch how she listens to the broadcasts concerning her loved ones who are on a dangerous mission), little if any of the film's romantic elements work or will engage most discerning viewers.

That's particularly true after one of the characters predictably returns from the dead (if you don't see that coming, you're the perfect sucker - uh viewer - for this film, since everyone knows that mainstream Hollywood films don't kill their heroes, if at all, until the climatic ending). That leaves the film with a lot of dead space when the bullets, bombs and torpedoes aren't whizzing, dropping or zipping by.

Perhaps sensing that, Bay does what he did so well in "Armageddon" and parts of "The Rock" and that's force-feed emotion to the viewer. It gets so bad - with all of those slow motion shots of men in action, low angle views of planes flying over kids playing baseball, shots of flags and Japanese kids playing, not to mention the manipulatively patriotic score from composer Hans Zimmer ("Hannibal," "Gladiator") - that one will probably feel like gagging after having such false sentimentality jammed down their gullet.

If either that or the blatant efforts to elicit a tear or lump in your throat don't choke you up, you'll probably spend other moments rolling your eyes, especially during the standard dumb movie scenes that inevitably arrive. Those include, but aren't limited to, a couple borrowing a police boat for a romantic outing, another doing the same with a military plane, the standard hot dogging in such planes in front of everyone that would get such perpetrators demoted, and a nurse talking an officer into letting her eavesdrop on the outcome of a top secret mission.

Although essentially just a three-person show, there are obviously other characters present to fill up the empty spaces, take some bullets or deliver their fair share of goofy dialogue. Although Alec Baldwin ("State and Main," "The Hunt For Red October") gets plenty of the latter while portraying real-life war hero Jimmy Doolittle, he brings a degree of fun to his character that's missing from most of the rest. Cuba Gooding, Jr. ("Men of Honor," "Jerry Maguire") gets surprisingly little time to play his similarly real character that ultimately comes off as not much more than a sketch.

Jon Voight ("Mission: Impossible," "Anaconda"), on the other hand, is at least okay as President Roosevelt even if the material around him is surprisingly lackluster and/or occasionally embarrassing (such as when FDR stands from his chair to prove if he can do that, the country can win the war).

The always reliable Tom Sizemore ("Saving Private Ryan," "Bringing Out the Dead") delivers a decent take as an airfield mechanic, but the rest of the performers, including Ewen Bremner ("Snatch," "Julien Donkey-Boy") and James King ("Blow," "Happy Campers") as young lovers, Dan Aykroyd ("The House of Mirth," "1941") as a Navy cryptologist and Mako ("Tucker: The Man and His Dreams," "The Sand Pebbles") as the Japanese admiral, don't get enough time or attention to stand out.

Although amazing to behold in its signature half hour or so of special effects laden mayhem, the film doesn't come close to the quality or emotional depth of "Saving Private Ryan" or "Titanic," both of which it's clearly trying to combine in one big piece of rah-rah entertainment as funneled through reverence to those who lost their lives in the real attack.

In those other films, one could sense and feel the directors' connection with the events and their victims. Here, everything feels too carefully calculated as if the filmmakers' sole intention was to make the biggest blockbuster of all time, rather than tell a story that would connect with the audience. I'm sure this effort will make hundreds of millions of dollars and the same young audience that ate up the romance in "Titanic" may do the same here.

It's just too bad - as is the case in many summer blockbuster films - that not as much effort, time and/or money was put into crafting a compelling, heartfelt and believable story and characters as was done in staging all of the effects and pyrotechnics. Certainly not jaw dropping awful, but clearly nowhere as good as it could and should have been, "Pearl Harbor" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed May 22, 2001 / Posted May 25, 2001

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