Bombs Away

The casualties in the epic wannabe `Pearl Harbor' are the actors, who aren't given enough ammunition by the filmmakers to win the day.

May 25, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

When three commercial moviemakers set out to create "Pearl Harbor," they faced a central question. How do you make the events of Dec. 7, 1941, pertinent to generations who barely remember later milestones, like Nov. 22, 1963?

The solution for producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Top Gun"), director Michael Bay ("Armageddon") and screenwriter Randall Wallace ("Braveheart") was to manufacture a "personal" story about two Army fly-boy friends and the Navy nurse they both love - a triangle that comes together in Hawaii on Dec. 6.

The outcome is that young moviegoers will emerge thinking that Pearl Harbor was only secondarily the site of the Japanese sneak attack that pulled us into World War II. To them, it will be primarily the place where a couple of daredevils took their P-40s into the air, downed a half-dozen Zeroes, raced to the hospital to give blood at the request of their fair maiden, and then jumped into the harbor to rescue drowning sailors.

"Pearl Harbor" is a brain-dead buddy-movie tearjerker with semi-tasteful romance and tasteful gore mixed in with the derring-do.

Inventing fictional characters to open up a piece of history is an honorable pursuit. What dishonors it in "Pearl Harbor" is the pitiful level of imagination and execution. Kate Beckinsale is pert and pretty, but not even the young Vanessa Redgrave could carry off the scenes where Nurse Evelyn poses on cliffs (like the nymph on the old White Rock soda bottles) and writes love letters in the twilight. It would be campy if a Hallmark card could be campy; instead it's just reheated corn.

The men who vie for her devotion are the most understanding, self-sacrificial friends since Damon and Pythias. It's too bad Damon and Affleck aren't playing them.

Ben Affleck shows up as Rafe McCauley, a plucky crop-duster's son and born pilot, but Josh Hartnett has the Matt Damon role of Danny Walker, the fragile soul with a broken-down World War I vet dad. The two get nothing going with each other or with Beckinsale. Hartnett practices a soulful, distant stare that overshoots anyone he's playing with. That's doubly unfortunate, since Affleck only cuts loose with his sly humor and prickly intelligence when he careens off sturdy co-stars. He looks spiffy in a uniform but he acts strait-jacketed.

Still, the actors do what they can - it's the direction and the script that do them in. Former music-video director Michael Bay has had such enormous box-office success that movie journalists have begun to write of him respectfully. But Bay doesn't know where to put the camera. It's not surprising that the leads cook up such feeble chemistry. In every intimate scene, Bay slams his lens into their faces - it's amazing they can get their lines out without fogging up the glass.

And Bay conceives his action scenes more like a cannoneer than a choreographer, launching explosive images that momentarily jolt an audience without building a clear impression of a battle or a strategy.

Bay's failings fatally undercut Cuba Gooding Jr. as Dorie Miller, an African-American mess attendant on the USS West Virginia who won the Navy Cross. It should be stirring when he mans a huge anti-aircraft gun and starts pounding away at the Japanese pilots. The way the scene is shot, though, he appears to be mowing down the men in the ship across from him; there are far more Americans than Japanese in his line of fire.

Screenwriter Wallace matches Bay gaffe for gaffe. Before he brings us to Hawaii, we must witness Rafe and Danny as young friends in Tennessee, their Air Corps training on Long Island, Rafe's cute but intense courtship of Evelyn, and the repercussions of his choice to join the RAF and fight the Nazis before the United States enters the war. When Rafe is shot down and presumed dead, that gives Evelyn and Danny the OK to get romantic after a suitable mourning period. Then Rafe arrives in Hawaii the day before the attack.

The dialogue is as basic and woefully naive as the plotting. When Rafe hands Evelyn the standard God-and-I-made a-deal-for-me-to-see-you-again line, the fellow next to me sneered, "You should have gotten it in writing! You should have been more specific!" On the plus side, Wallace's decision to follow the Pearl Harbor disaster with a depiction of Doolittle's surprise raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942, gives viewers the satisfaction of seeing a plan hatched, nurtured and carried out.

But Wallace riddles Doolittle's talk with gung-ho speechifying ("There's just nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer") that Alec Baldwin delivers just a stop short of his parody mode on "Saturday Night Live." And the shootout between bomber crews and Japanese ensuing on the Chinese mainland resembles those cowboy-and-Indian movies where the Native Americans drop on cue.

Although Asian-Americans have protested the movie even before its premiere, the filmmakers have striven for fairness. They include a line about the U.S. oil embargo of Japan that provides a geopolitical rationale for the raid. In general, the Japanese military scenes have more dignity and weight than the American ones, perhaps because the dialogue in them is restricted to terse subtitles.

Those who should be offended are American veterans. Their service has been reduced to a sentimental fable of two heroic pilots and their noble lass proving their gumption and their bravery. Even as a tall tale, it's puny.

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