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'Pearl Harbor': Bombs Away

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2001


    'Pearl Harbor' Ben Affleck stars in "Pearl Harbor."
When you assume battle stations for "Pearl Harbor," make sure you sit near the aisle. You've got three hours to withstand, and only about half of it is war. This is definitely a two-bathroom visit movie.

It's not the length that makes a movie good or bad. It's the pacing. Some three-hour movies, like "Lawrence of Arabia," just glide by. But movies like "Pearl Harbor" drag along because they . . . take . . . their . . . time . . . about . . . everything.

Put it this way: When a Japanese military officer reports that "the task force" is 320 miles north of Pearl Harbor, we're one hour and 20 minutes into the movie. By then, you're ready to bomb something yourself.

Perhaps they should have called this "Bore-a, Bore-a, Bore-a."

Incidentally, although this Walt Disney movie is based, inspired and even partially informed by a real event referred to as Pearl Harbor, the movie is actually based on the movies "Top Gun," "Titanic" and "Saving Private Ryan." Don't get confused.

And don't be worried about emotional intensity. It's going to take a special effort on your part (probably informed by firsthand wartime experience in World War II) to actually appreciate the emotional impact of what happened on Dec. 7, 1941. "Pearl Harbor"-the-movie, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay (also the director), doesn't evoke that time so much as turn it into a pre-Fourth of July fireworks show.

The movie's emotional impact is not helped by the characters. By the time the Japanese are blowing ships out of the water, we have met (and already become sick of) our blandly delineated sweethearts, flying-crazy pilot Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and intelligent, dedicated nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale).

We have also observed the lifelong friendship between Rafe and his pal Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett). The movie starts with Rafe and Danny as kids, sitting in a motionless crop duster plane, pretending to shoot enemy planes. Some two hours later, they'll be mounting the American counterattack against the Japanese. "Danny, let's play some chicken with these Jap suckers!" yells Rafe.

In what amounts to a superfluous first hour, Rafe, desperate for military action in pre-Pearl Harbor days, volunteers for the Royal Air Force. Suddenly, he's missing, leaving Evelyn and Danny to pick up the pieces and each other. Why waste time worrying if he'll reappear in time for Pearl Harbor as well as a romantic dogfight with Danny? He's Ben Affleck, the movie's top-billed player.

There's more to this so-so movie, including a completely formulaic subplot starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as a ship's cook who boxes and machine-guns his way to r-e-s-p-e-c-t (loosely based on a real person, Doris "Dorie" Miller), and Hans Zimmer's relentlessly syrupy score. But let's cut to the chase: those central 40 minutes of blitzkrieg special effects. Isn't that why people will be lining the block? My take: The visuals are well done but not mind-blowingly memorable. It would take a director far more gifted than Bay to outdo James Cameron in "Titanic." Perhaps intimidated by this, Bay gives us many scenes featuring marooned men in the water, and many others stuck inside majestic, sinking hulls. And when the Japanese planes strafe those men, he goes underwater – like Steven Spielberg did in "Saving Private Ryan" – to show the cool, glossy white trajectories the tracer bullets make underwater.

Obviously, imitation will get you everywhere.

"Pearl Harbor"(PG-13, 183 minutes) – Contains war carnage and some strong language.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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