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'Pearl Harbor' Revives '40s War Movie Moves to Evoke the Day of Infamy

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2001


    'Pearl Harbor' Ben Affleck stars in "Pearl Harbor."
"Pearl Harbor" is definitely about December 7, 1941, but it is not of December 7, 1941. It's not even really of our age, either. It has more of the feel of a film from, roughly, mid-war.

That's because it's not just a generic World War II movie, but a specific kind. In tone and mood, it does not belong to the first wave of bitter agitprop, those encomiums to genocide like "Bataan" and "Air Force" in which the Japanese were a monkey-race to be exterminated without mercy. But neither is it a post-Bulge, post-Iwo late-war movie, exhausted, sacrifice-numbed and confidence-shattered so that the war was no longer a crusade but had become an ordeal.

Rather, it's from that weird mid-war period where romantic idealization was still possible, but tempered by an awareness of the depth and breadth of the struggle. The movies were no longer furious and racist; they had become passionate examinations of the emotional conflict between love and duty. The greatest of these films, of course, was "Casablanca," whose low-tech plot is subtly echoed underneath all the high-tech frenzy of "Pearl Harbor." And that is one reason why, until a disappointing tailspin in the last hour (of three), "Pearl Harbor" is the best piece of popular entertainment to come along in years, for my money a much better heartbreaker, thrillmaker and tear-tweaker than "Titanic."

Some people – most of them professional moviegoers – will argue that it's corny and predictable. I would counter-argue: That's the point. The movie's greatest accomplishment, after its extraordinary re-creation of the Day of Infamy, is the brilliance with which it understands and integrates '40s movie tropes. You've seen 'em before; you'll see 'em again here: the noble woman, the two heroes who love her, the end of a beautiful friendship, the big battle, the reconciliation under fire and the last sacrifice. It's the same old story, but not a fight for love and glory: It's a fight between love and glory, really. Yeah, okay, it was better with Bogart and Bergman, but everything was better with Bogart and Bergman.

Our heroes have nice '40s names and cheekbones: Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck, the seasoned one) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett, the beautiful one). Both look good in the '40s flyboy duds, with leather A-2 jackets over khakis and Ray-Ban aviators and a cap scrunched nearly flat under earphones. Best pals from a hardscrabble Tennessee childhood, they're now hot young Air Corps studs, P-40 Warhawk jocks out of a Long Island air base where they regularly play mock-chicken at 350 miles an hour 35 feet above the ground, to the delight and admiration of the rest of the squadron.

Remember the meet-cute of '40s movies? For "Pearl Harbor," someone – presumably screenwriter Randall ("Braveheart") Wallace – came up with a lulu of a gag for this old-time ritual. Handsome Rafe meets beautiful naval nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale, who has the classic face of a '40s screen goddess) over the point of a hypodermic needle. He is not, at that moment, exactly putting his best face forward. She really gets his attention when she gives him three inches of booster shot where it's always pasty white. Since, it turns out, he has already had that same shot and only came around again to meet her, he promptly passes out from the double dose. Heck, even I could get a girl that way.

But though they have a magic night in the New York City of early 1941 (swing rules, as do brassy nightclubs and bottles of bubbly), and though love is absolute and instant (as it always was in '40s movies), duty beckons. He's already volunteered to go to England for a tour with the Eagle Squadron, the Yank volunteer unit with the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain. Danny remains in the States, and by the miracle of the motion picture's capacity to abbreviate time, Rafe is swiftly in the cockpit of a slightly-used Spitfire, jousting with the Hun Messerschmidts over the White Cliffs. He brings down the ace's handful: five. But the sixth smokes him, and we see him sliding under the waves of the Channel.

Is he dead? Was Victor Laszlo dead in "Casablanca"? Am I giving away a secret? Yes, if you're a moron.

Meanwhile, the movie widens. It flirts with, but never commits to, documentary style as it flits among a number of more or less historically accurate plot strands. The Japanese genius admiral and Harvard grad Isoroku Yamamoto (the great Formosan actor Mako, turned into a leathery, wizened Yoda of naval warfare) plots the attack on Pearl Harbor. In Washington, code breakers led by ex-ghostbuster Dan Aykroyd attempt to crack the numeric jive of Japan's secret radio chatter. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (brilliantly played by an unrecognizable Jon Voight) worries about the Pacific and Japanese intentions. Back at Pearl Harbor, a black mess steward named Dorie Miller (Cuba Gooding Jr.) hates the fact that he's relegated to the galley of his battlewagon.

In the main story, meanwhile, both Evelyn's nurse unit and Danny's fighter squadron are transferred to Pearl and the easy living in that peaceful paradise under blue skies, green palms and on white sandy beaches. Evelyn and Danny are so noble it will make you sick unless you once dreamed of Ingrid Bergman – so close, so far away, as you lit a butt and cursed the fact that of all the gin joints in the world, she picked yours. Evelyn and Danny, mourning Rafe and made hesitant by their guilt over what they're feeling, wait three full months before going goo-goo-eyed over each other. Here, the movie gets moony and slack, and many of you will be saying, "Send in the Zeros!"

Of course Rafe, miraculously rescued from the dead, arrives in Pearl 24 hours before the Japanese, and in that brief time the movie shunts through sequences of romantic betrayal, jealousy, anger, anguish and all those High Emotions from "Casablanca." But there's a subtle rearrangement of the materials: It's Rafe, the Victor Laszlo substitute, who gets to show Rick's rage and bitterness and cynicism. Rafe is crushed at what he views as treachery; Danny wanly tries to rationalize what really wasn't his fault, after all; and Evelyn tries to decide which hunk is more to her taste, a situation made more urgent by the bun in her oven.

Just when you think all of this would play better in black-and-white, the Japanese arrive to bring you back to the movie's title. What follows is certainly the most spectacular hour of American film since the Normandy sequence in "Ryan."

Of course what you're seeing was not created in the actual world, not quite like this; we're looking at some computerized constructions mated magically to a few big props in a big Baja tank. But not for a second can you believe it's not real: The Japanese planes swarm like insects, buzzing low to the ground, spewing tracers – they ping-ping-ping when they hit the ships – and dumping torpedoes and bombs. The camera in cyberspace conjures up some fantastic rides: We cling to the tail fin of a Japanese 500-pounder sailing down toward the Arizona, its silly little propeller fuse spinning loose like a child's toy as it rushes closer and closer to the big gray target below. We strafe with the fighters and watch their tracers arc out into space before us and rip their targets. The gigantic ships roll over like dying dinosaurs on the day of the big meteor, spilling sailors by the hundreds into the boiling waters. Astonishing.

And the movie, bless its heart, is quite decent to our opponents in that conflict, the Japanese. You can feel restraint all the way through, and if this is certainly market-driven, the gentleness is still worthy of appreciation: The Japanese are never personified in the old style, and there's no money shot of grinning Oriental fiends, cackling with raptor's glee as they machine-gun sailors, and there's no sense of Americans then paying them back in vengeful lead. Yet at the same time the unlovely word "Jap" is uttered promiscuously during the attack, as it must have been in the real thing. So there's an effective balance between '01 decency and '41 accuracy.

Director Michael Bay focuses on small moments of heroism to give focus to the slaughter: That black mess steward ends up on a 20mm AA gun and splashes a bomber. Everybody behaves with a great deal of nobility and courage, and in the hospital, in a scorching, searing scene, those '40s-doll nurses get with the program and become dirty-faced heroines who live up to the terror inflicted upon them, like the gals in "So Proudly We Hail" (1943).

Of course even as the carnage continues in the harbor, fighter pilots and former best buddies Rafe and Danny struggle through strafing runs to a satellite airfield and, hung over and bleary-eyed in half-buttoned aloha shirts, still in high-spat mode over the Evelyn issue, manage to get aloft for a touch of retribution, P-40 style. The movie really delivers this sortie with satisfying dramatic crunch: The big Yank pursuit ships rumble through the air like forces of industrial might after the more agile but flimsier Japanese craft. What they hit, they kill.

This sequence reflects the actual flights that morning of two genuine American heroes, George Welch and Ken Taylor, who brought down seven Japanese planes, exactly the number ascribed to Danny and Rafe.

Alas, the movie quickly squanders much of the goodwill it has accumulated in a unnecessary and unnecessarily protracted denouement, where you have no choice but to rescind its poetic license.

It's feeble but forgivable that Rafe could go from P-40s to Spitfires back to P-40s again without missing a beat because, after all, both were low-winged, high performance fighter planes. But somehow fighter jock Rafe, as well as pal Danny and the rest of the squadron from Pearl, end up flying B-25s off the aircraft carrier Hornet in a hurried version of Jimmy Doolittle's reprisal raid on Tokyo and several other Japanese cities in April 1942.

This seems to be where "Pearl Harbor" abandons the '40s and leaps headlong into our own dismal century. You could say the hammer has fallen, or is it the Bruckheimer, after producer and vulgarian Jerry Bruckheimer, perpetrator of such monstrosities as "Armageddon" and "The Rock" (both of which Bay also directed, quite loudly). It's not merely the nauseating spectacle of a paunchy, double-chinned liberal blowhard like Alec Baldwin playing the rock-solid, cue-ball-bald conservative war hero Doolittle, it's that the Bruckheimer spirit of giganticism has to be indulged.

The raid on Tokyo was a fabulous uplift for a beleaguered nation. But guess what, folks: They dropped about 16 bombs and blew up a few outhouses. The old chestnut "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" (1944) does a much more fair version of the raid; in the overexaggerated stylizations of '01, the bombs rain down on Tokyo and devastate blocks and blocks of factories.

Then, as all the Tokyo raiders did, Rafe and Danny, in separate bombers, crash-land in China and immediately begin a ridiculous gunfight with Japanese soldiers. Suddenly it's "The Wild Bunch," with .45s blazing away and grenades blowing up and men dying like flies and the problem between Danny and Rafe solved in the most cowardly way possible, a way Bogie never would have countenanced.

As long as "Pearl Harbor" stays in the past, it's perfect; when it wretchedly changes gears in the late going, it becomes the wrong kind of same old story: Hollywood stupidity and callowness, writ large across the sky.

"Pearl Harbor" (180 minutes,) is rated PG-13 for scenes of intense battle, though not of the graphic nature of "Saving Private Ryan."


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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