June 2, 2001 -- "Pearl Harbor" isn't anywhere near what it could have been as a movie, but the battle scenes are astonishing and it has a passable love story. Too bad they didn't have this moviemaking technology available when they made "Tora, Tora, Tora," the definitive movie about the attack on Pearl Harbor.
This is history lite. While it doesn't give the viewer a comprehensive overview of the causes behind the attack on Pearl Harbor and why the U.S. was so unprepared for it, it does give a brief, thin and oversimplified view. The forte of this film is special effects. The scene of the bombing of the USS Arizona is astonishing in its realism, from the point-of-view shot from the falling metal-piercing bomb, to the buckling of the ship's hull when the munitions below deck blows up. Incredible stuff. The movie also borrows successfully from "Saving Private Ryan" in the use of gunfire and bullet sound effects. The idea is that because of the distance of the guns from the targets and the speed of the bullets, you'll hear the impact from the bullets before you hear the gun firing. In some cases, you don't hear the gun at all, or you don't associate the distant gun fire from the more immediate thunk of the bullets. This makes the experience more frightening, and realistic. The aerial combat scenes are also dazzling. There is also an interesting use of "documentary" footage of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
While the battle scenes are superb, they still don't have the gut-wrenching impact of the D-Day scenes from "Saving Private Ryan," the super heavyweight of all war movies. A good portion of the film is devoted to a love triangle involving Rafe McCawley (played by Ben Affleck of "Bounce"), Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale of "The Last Days of Disco") and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett of "The Virgin Suicides"), two flyboys and a nurse. You'd be hard pressed to find a more handsome couple than McCawley and Johnson. The love story part of the film is passable, but not nearly as good as the battle scenes. If the romance had been a lot better, you'd have another "Titanic" kind of story with a strong one-two punch movie for men and women. It ends up as a bloated punch and a half.
Minor characters who shine include Cuba Gooding Jr., who shows us he's more than just a Navy cook and Tom Sizemore of "Saving Private Ryan," who plays a tough-as-nails flight mechanic. Veteran actor Jon Voight of "Varsity Blues" disappears into his role as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Alec Baldwin is good as General Doolittle, a considerable change from his sleazy "State and Main" character. Another veteran actor, Mako ("Seven Years in Tibet") does a nice job as Admiral Yamamoto of the Japanese Imperial Navy, mastermind of the attack.
One of the main problems with the film is that it is overlong at about three hours. Instead of just Pearl Harbor, which is quite enough material for a movie, it throws in the Battle of Britain and Doolittle's raid on Tokyo, too. Those two events have been the subject of their own books and movies (like "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo"). The film could have easily been cut to two hours. I suppose the filmmakers wanted to end on a positive note, but we all know who won the war. Well, most of us do. This film rates a B.
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