Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor movie poster-Ben Affleck-Josh Harnett

Rating: 3.5 of 5 ★★★½☆ 

This isn’t going to be a typical review because I’ve seen Pearl Harbor a dozen times. But I’m watching it while I cruise around the internet because I’m too tired to watch anything that requires thought. And with all due respect to Mr. Bruckheimer and Mr. Bay (because I’m generally a fan of them both) they ended it completely wrong.

Before I get to the ending, though, let me make some perfunctory comments about the movie overall.
The characters are action-movie flat which is to say they’re not painfully bad, but they’re certainly not particularly good and don’t have as much depth as the story would allow for. The performances are really hit or miss. I like all the actors, especially I think Kate Beckinsale is fantastic and her performances are generally the hits more than the misses.

The writing is not good. In part because there’s too much to do in too little time.

just in case you haven't seen it »
I mean, Rafe has to fall in love and then die and then Danny has to fall in love and then Rafe comes back all while WWII is going on. I’m totally ok with the idea that people fall in love much more quickly in times of extraordinary stress, but still that’s a lot of complications in the midst of a giant action movie plot to really sort through easily.
And the writing doesn’t help lend the characters any depth.

Most of all, I learned a lot about how Michael Bay directs from watching this movie. He is a genius when it comes to movement. Some directors move the camera and some move the actors, but no one moves both the camera and the actors at the same time the way Bay does. And its breathtaking and powerful.
But he can’t direct actor’s to save his life. Most of the poor performances, I place squarely on his shoulders because he doesn’t know a thing about eliciting a good performance from his actors or working with them to get a great performance.

Overall, beautiful movie with a sort of awkward story. Until you get to the ending…

The whole escapade into Japan was just too much, it made the film go on too long, it was too different in tone from the rest of the movie and ended on a tragic note with Josh Hartnett dead. None of it worked.

Now, I get that they didn’t want to end with the attack on Pearl Harbor because that’s tragic also and ends with the Japanese having kicked our ass. That’s unacceptable. Their problem was that they were telling the wrong story. Yes, you find a handful of scenes to pull our attention away from the tragedy of the attack and that day, you find a way to close it on something beautiful, something with hope and life. But we didn’t need the attack on Japan to find victory.

Because the first part of the movie is incredibly poignant. Two pilots doing everything they could to fight their way into the sky. One cook who steps up and gets behind a gun and fights back. There’s more victory in those small acts of strength and courage than in the broader attack later.

But Bay and Bruckheimer aren’t known for understanding nuance like that. They need a big fight to seem victorious and that undercut a lot of the story. Unlike Tolkien who wrote in a letter to Milton Waldman in late 1951 mentioning why Hobbits are small, and mostly to show up, in creatures of very small physical power, the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch’.

What Pearl Harbor needed was something like Bartlett’s speech at the end of the West Wing episode that aired a year after 9/11:
…securing peace in a time of global conflict, sustaining hope in this winter of anxiety and fear, more than any time in recent history America’s destiny is not of our own choosing. We did not seek, nor did we provoke an assault on our freedom, and our way of life. We did not expect nor did we invite a confrontation with evil. Yet the true measure of a people’s strength is how they rise to master that moment when it does arrive. 44 people were killed a couple of hours ago at Kineson State University. 3 swimmers from the men’s team were killed and 2 others are in critical condition when after having heard the explosion from their practice facility they ran into the fire to help get people out. Ran into the fire. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight they’re our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. But every time we think we’ve measured our capacity to meet a challenge we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America. Thank you.

And, now that I type that out I realize it might sound pro-war, especially in light of our current times, and it’s not intended to. It’s the story, the history of what actually happened and my opinion of what part of the story should or should not be told doesn’t change what actually happened that day. It’s easier to tell stories where aliens are the enemy. But there are no aliens. There’s only humans and we just keep fighting each other.

Writing:★★☆☆☆ 
Characters:★★★☆☆ 
Performances:★★¾☆☆ 
Directing:★★★★½ 
Production:★★★★¾ 
Overall:★★★½☆ 

May 26, 2001 | Review , , | this post contains affiliate links

2 responses to “Pearl Harbor

  1. Jenah

    It’s been too long since I saw Pearl Harbor to remember the ending exactly. Although I do remember it went on a bit too long. And I remember thinking that it had come full circle to where Kate and Ben’s characters could be together afer his supposedly being dead for so long…or something.

    “..and mostly to show up, in creatures of very small physical power, the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch’.”
    I LOVE that. I think that is what gets me when I watched shows like Angel or Buffy where normal people without superpowers would join up to help. Because it was right. The right thing to do. And the odds were not in their favor.

    • aj

      Yeah, the courage of the everyman hero is often a lot more compelling than the super hero. Sometimes especially in super hero stories like Buffy and Angel because you see the everyman in contrast to the super hero.

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