The names Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay atop the credit block should be enough to send chills down the spine of any self-respecting filmgoer. That the duo responsible for "The Rock," "Bad Boys" and "Armageddon" should imagine themselves qualified to step into epic war film territory would be grand fodder for a joke if it weren't so completely true. Indeed, what they have wrought here is precisely what should have been expected--a loquacious morass of clichés pillaged from nearly every old Hollywood war melodrama, mashed together in such a way as to hopefully create the impression of depth and emotion in audiences either too young or too inept to know the difference.
"Titanic" is the model with which director/producer Bay and producer Bruckheimer are working, although neither shares James Cameron's genuine knack for the kind of goofball sentiment required to make such films succeed. In watching "Pearl Harbor," in fact, it's clear that Bay and Bruckheimer are desperately second-guessing their film's emotional impact at ever stage, never fully confident in anything but the most familiar and predictable plot devices.
Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett star as childhood buddies Rafe and Danny, a pair of would-be aces so daring that they make the aces of Bruckheimer's own "Top Gun" look like sissies. World War II hasn't yet arrived for the U.S., though, which makes Rafe feel downright impotent. Naturally, so as to insure that the film has a story, Rafe woos a beautiful nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) and then splits for England to help shoot down Germans, leaving Evelyn and buddy Danny in each other's trustworthy (wink, wink) care. Subsequent turns are strictly paint-by-numbers stuff: Shot down in battle, Rafe is presumed dead, which leaves Danny and Evelyn--both now stationed at Pearl Harbor--emotionally devastated and weak. They find solace in each other's arms and believe their lives are starting anew when Rafe shows up alive, explaining that he was rescued by French fishermen and cared for in occupied France before making his way out (a presumably fascinating story which he promises to later explain but never does).
Just as this sassy little romantic triangle starts to heat up, the film takes time out for 40 minutes of pyrotechnic masturbation, during which a cook on the U.S.S. Arizona (Cuba Gooding Jr.) mans a gun and becomes a hero while Rafe and Danny get some dogfight time in the air with a few Japanese Zeros (an incident that must have escaped historians).
Once back on the ground, things get silly once again and the film clumsily shuffles forward to the famous Doolittle Raid wherein pilot Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) led a team of crack aces (Rafe and Danny naturally among them) to take a squadron of customized long-range bombers to execute a relatively insignificant little bombing raid on some industrial complexes in Tokyo.
That the film even has the nerve to tag the Doolittle Raid onto the end of a story that is ostensibly about Pearl Harbor is typical of just how calculated and heartless the whole pre-programmed and processed mess really is. It's a movie made by design rather than inspiration, imitative and derivative to the point of being almost laughable. Everything is excess and overkill: Beckinsale's Devil Red lipstick, the backlit steam that billows from departing trains, the way that planes snap apart and disintegrate video game-style after being hit only by bullets, the way the mostly CGI attack sequence guarantees that its computer-generated black smoke never obfuscates any of the other effects, the way that every explosion hurtles debris directly at the audience like a bad 3-D movie, the way that Hans Zimmer's music intrudes on every scene with a melodramatic intensity that makes Max Steiner seem like a minimalist.
As easy as it would be to dissect the overlong and underwhelming attack sequence, it's the film's actors who ultimately get the worst of it. In what is easily his biggest role to date, Ben Affleck is nothing short of an abomination, a performance so overwrought, so unwatchably bad that audiences are likely to think Hartnett's wooden turn as Danny the pinnacle of thespian interpretation by comparison. Beckinsale fares better than the rest thanks to a role so thinly written that her own natural charms can't help but shine through. But other embarrassments persist, including Jon Voight's transformation into FDR courtesy of Jay Leno's chin and W.C. Fields' nose, both so poorly attached that the seams can be seen in nearly every closeup.
As much as one would like to leave the bulk of the blame at the feet of Bay and Bruckheimer, there is a third co-conspirator whose contribution to this mess must not go uncredited. While it's not entirely clear just how much latitude screenwriter Randall Wallace may have had in crafting the story, the fact that there aren't really any redeeming elements to "Pearl Harbor" at all (other than its façade of computer-generated spectacle) makes it impossible to excuse him from blame. If for nothing more than the film's stagnant, hackneyed dialogue alone, Wallace deserves to be pilloried.
Today's audiences, unfortunately, live increasingly off of borrowed emotions and memories, more and more out of touch with their own humanity. It is for these tasteless automatons that "Pearl Harbor" has been made, and it is at their feet more than anywhere else that blame for the debacle should be placed.
For everyone else, there is always "Tora! Tora! Tora!" Starring Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett, Alec Baldwin and Cuba Gooding Jr. Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Randall Wallace. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay. A Buena Vista release. Historical Romance. Rated PG-13 for sustained intense war sequences, images of wounded, brief sensuality and some language. Running time: 182 min