Pearl Harbor movie poster
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Pearl Harbor movie poster

Pearl Harbor Movie Review

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This review may sound more critical than it really is. Pearl Harbor is an entertaining and gripping movie, but has many small faults that some may not even care to recognize and that some will consider gigantic interruptions.

Pearl Harbor tells the story of two pilots and the woman they are both in love with. Of course, their love triangle is challenged by the sudden attack by Japanese forces on Hawaii, which cascades the United States into war with the Axis Powers. Most of the characters in the movie are ficticious, but no one can really blame the people in charge of the film for it, since they are really just trying to capitalize on the Titanic phenomenon of a few years before. Pearl Harbor follows a very similar formula; take a historic event, throw in a romance that never really happened, and have some large ships sink with people trying to hang on for dear life.

And when everything boils down to the point, Pearl Harbor is nothing but a way to make  a lot of money, using every trick in the book that action star producer Jerry Bruckheimer knows very well how to use. Luckily, it carries the audience along at a decent pace the whole way, and does not go the cheap way in depicting what can be considered modern America's most devastating battle.

Pearl Harbor is three hours long and can easily be broken up into three sections, which can then be subdivided into several more sections that can be reviewed quite easily. The first third of the movie introduces us to the characters, tries to build up the romantic elements, and prepares us for the inevitable. The second section is the attack, which is by far, as should be expected, the most entertaining, most jaw-dropping, and most stunning portion of the movie. The third section is a mix of drama wrap-up and action, as America enacts its revenge.

I will go out of order here and give my perspective on the attack scene. Except for one woman who oddly got up in the middle and went to the bathroom, the audience was at their edge of the seats. It was not that they did not know what was going to happen; it was that the blend of shaky camera work, which has become a standard since Saving Private Ryan, and some of the best visual effects seen to date bring the Pearl Harbor attack back to life. Ships are torn to pieces, airplanes are everywhere, and surprised soldiers are left helpless as the Pacific fleet is all but obliterated. The attack sequence goes on for forty minutes, I think, and barely lets up. The small scenes shown in the previews, where kids look up from a baseball game, a woman ducks as she is doing her laundry, and so forth are kept intact, and have the same effect as the first time I saw them, nearly a year ago on the opening day of The Patriot. If I do end up buying this film on DVD later in my life, I probably will have no regrets skipping over the first and last sections of Pearl Harbor and just watching this intense action scene. I hate to use certain words like 'cool' because this attack did happen in real life and thousands of people died. However, this brings me to my next point.

At the very early stages of the attack, one of the characters, one that stutters when nervous, jumps into the sleeping quarters of the pilots and tries to tell them that the Japanese are coming. Instead, he can't even manage to blurt the word out until bullets fly through the walls. The audience laughs at this. It is funny. I laughed. But should director Michael Bay and producer Bruckheimer be making us laugh during one of the most serious moments of American history? Furthermore, should they be doing this throughout the rest of the movie as well? My answer is no, but they obviously do not agree with me. Pearl Harbor seems a lot like Independence Day, where there are a few intense action scenes surrounded by lots of comical scenes. Independence Day is a sci-fi thriller, not a war movie based on real events. These two movies should not be treated the same. In one scene, Ben Affleck tries to kiss Kate Beckinsale but something goes wrong and he ends up in the water. Oh, wait, his attempts fail a number of times. The audience laughs. A laugh once in a while is okay, but the script seems to have forgotten that it is telling a story about a tragedy.

Those looking for romance a la Titanic will find much of the same stuff here, only the chemistry does not fly as it did between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett. There are a lot of established actors in the movie but I never become convinced of the romantic relationship between Affleck and Beckinsale, except for what the movie visually shows the audience on screen. Beckinsale and Hartnett are a little more convincing, but even they seem ill-matched. When the audience cannot see the chemistry, that sort of ruins it for a three-hour romance film. When Affleck returns from London (which should not surprise anyone watching the movie, despite what happens), the conflict between the two friends and Beckinsale seems muted at the least, which brings me to my next point.

Pearl Harbor focuses unequally on many things. It obviously stresses the romantic element of the film, but only skin deep; slow motion shots, blurred shots, and more are used frequently throughout the movie, trying to portray the emotions of the characters; I think are better and more sincere ways to do it than through camera work. Besides, camera tricks just slow the film down. What I am really bothered by, though, is the lack of politics in the movie. I am a fan of big, explosive movies; I do not mind watching a movie for pure entertainment value, and Pearl Harbor is one of those movies. However, I can still say, "It should have had this" as many times as I want, and I will. The world is at war and the United States is all but sitting back and watching as the Earth is torn apart. We learn this through a few brief statements by the President, who shows up at very strange times. You would think that he would be a slightly consistent character, but he only shows up when the plot absolutely needs him to act as sort of a narrator. The politics behind the war and why Pearl Harbor is attacked is never really explained, except through one small statement by the Japanese; "They've cut off oil."

The character inconsistencies extend to everyone except for Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale. Ben Affleck is the main character, really, but even he disappears for a while, as the movie tries to pretend that he is dead, even though that it is quite obvious that he is going to turn up again. The movie explains in about a minute length flashback where he was for the last three months. Cuba Gooding, Jr., who seems like he really has never left his role from Men of Honor, is given very little screen time, even though he is one of the more interesting characters. There are many other characters that appear for a little while and then vanish until is convenient for them to show up again.

My greatest miff, however, lies in the portrayal of the Japanese. In a way, Pearl Harbor does a good job (compared to other films) in portraying the Japanese as people, not monsters who will just attack for no reason. A few military proceedings are shown where the Japanese generals debate over how they need to attack the US swiftly to keep them out of the war and reopen America's stream of oil to the island nation, but my problem is that the movie has condensed all of Japan's motives into about fifteen minutes of screen time. Every sentence that comes out of the Japanese's mouths do not waste a word, because Pearl Harbor is so caught up in dealing with the romantic elements of the film that it does not really care why Japan attacks. At first, I was thinking of commending this movie on staying pretty neutral, but then I realized that Pearl Harbor is really a step back in the way of modern war films (anti-war films), in that it really glamorizes honor, fighting to the death, and being patriotic for the will of America. Sure, the fear of soldiers are shown a little bit in the attack and there is one hideous moment where Beckinsale goes outside of the hospital to see many burnt soldiers stumbling towards her, screaming, but that is about it in the way of real, anti-war feelings. I do not really find anything wrong with glamorizing America to a point, since the Allies did win the war, but to a point. After the attack, the movie extends for another long period of time as America plans a revenge move, to attack Tokyo. At this point, the Japanese are no longer shown as humans, but as men behind machine guns as the bombers hit a few spots in Tokyo.

I do not understand why this movie extends so far past Pearl Harbor. We know what happens later on, and you could just as easily wrap up the movie in the days following the Pearl Harbor attack, including romance, military, and so forth. Instead, the movie drags on and we get to listen to Alec Baldwin say just about every idiotic line ever created for the big screen, sort of like, "Let's go kill those Japs!" At this point, Pearl Harbor is failing to show Americans as innocents who are fighting the war for the sake of the world, but as guys with big guns wanting revenge. Save it for another movie.

As far as acting and scriptwork go, I've seen better. Ben Affleck with his slight southern accent just doesn't sound right, and the various other stars also have imperfections. The larger problem might be the script, which serves its purpose for the most part, but when it gets to really meaningful things, like war-related speeches, it just loses it. In fact, as the movie goes on, the dialogue gets worse and worse.

It can easily be said that Pearl Harbor is a war movie for the common person. It does not think that a widespread audience can find entertainment in a seriously gripping and gritty war movie, despite the fact that most people agree that Saving Private Ryan is one of the best war movies of the last few decades, and that one was definitely seriously gripping and gritty. I didn't expect another Saving Private Ryan, but I also didn't expect a watered down love story with comedy and a twisted love triangle that takes up more of the movie's time than the attack that the title implies. I found Pearl Harbor entertaining, and the attack sequence was truly gripping, but a good half hour could have been cut out of the build-up to the attack, and the entire ending could have helped this movie by being slashed as well. Watch the movie and have a good time, but maybe think about all the ways that Pearl Harbor could have been ten times better.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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