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Unlike the remake, the Pearl Harbor of December 1941 occurred in a media black hole. That this crippling debacle was recorded at all is largely due to the coincidental presence of the Fox Movietone camera crew in Hawaii to shoot background for a John Payne programmer, To the Shores of Tripoli. The footage was held for 11 weeks and then, per navy policy, shown only after all pictures of actual combat were deleted. A complete version was cleared a full year after the raid, but it was not until 1943, when John Ford and Gregg Toland's largely restaged (and massively hacked) "documentary" December 7th was released, that the catastrophe received definitive screen form. Until now?
Pearl Harbor recasts the story as myth. A pair of corn-fed farm kids playing dogfight with daddy's crop duster grow up to be daring flyboys Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, waiting for the U.S. to join the war already raging in Europe. Enter a bevy of teenage nurses, anachronistically chattering about soldier butt. An elaborate medical meet-cute puts the wooden Affleck in exciting proximity to Kate Beckinsalea raven-maned thoroughbred with a sensational '40s wardrobe. Everyone is bound for the peaceful base in Pearl Harbor until Affleck volunteers to help the RAF. Soon he's flying missions over the English Channel while Beckinsale pines for him on Diamond Head.
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Meanwhile, the Japanese conspire, robotically declaiming their attack plan to the sound of pounding kettle drums. Hollywood's last trip to Pearl, the ill-fated 1970 epic Tora! Tora! Tora!, treated World War II as a sort of international coproduction, being half shot from the Japanese point of view. Here the stereotypes are in place, although a discreet nod to American economic pressure on Japan, not to mention the tactful omission of any reference to Japanese atrocities in China, betrays Disney's desire to maintain some credibility in the lucrative Japanese market.
A movie of strenuous romance and boisterous bonhomie, Pearl Harbor is constructed on the Titanic modelless a combat flick than a romantic disaster film that keeps you waiting for that asteroid to finally hit. "People in this outfit have way too much time on their hands," Beckinsale complains as she prepares to embark on a new romance with the puppyish Hartnett. Randall Wallace's scenario hopefully floats a few whoppingly unlikely personal complications while churning the never limpid waters of bureaucratic culpability. (Small solace to have ghostbuster Dan Aykroyd cast as the lone intelligence officer who saw the attack coming.)
Arriving just past midpoint in the 160-odd minute movie, the big blowout improves on the Ford-Toland re-creation, whichdespite its miniatures and rear screen projectionwas appropriated by later documentaries, even as it provided the template for Tora! Tora! Tora! and the 1983 miniseries The Winds of War. The sky above Pearl is thick with low-flying Japanese bombers. Digital explosions ripple the screen. Despite close-ups of trapped men and smashing metal, there's the dehumanized sense of hornets swarming over an overturned anthill. The chaos is convincing, but, less ruthless than Steven Spielberg, Bay eschews D-day panic and mutilation. The hospital madness goes mercifully misty at strategic momentsif not before it inspires speculation on how an ER might appear in a big-budget movie called Hiroshima.
Lasting half an hour, the Pearl Harbor scene encompasses a bit of payback as Affleck and Hartnett manage to get themselves airborne. The men in the water cheer this cowboy duo, although their success hardly compensates for the flaming, corpse-clogged harbor or the hordes of charbroiled soldiers storming the hospital. With nearly an hour to run, the movie has to resolve this bummer. Wallace's script paraphrases Tora! Tora! Tora!'s final lineAdmiral Yamamoto second-guesses his apparent victory, "I fear that all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant"and includes a large chunk of FDR's December 8 speech to Congress. Indeed, Roosevelt (an unrecognizable Jon Voight) is personalized as inspirational leader. Frustrated by perceived defeatism among his military advisers, he rises painfully from his wheelchair and says, "Do not tell me it cannot be done." Finally, the movie foists off Alec Baldwin (in Bruce Willis mode) as Jimmy Doolittle and tacks on an abbreviated Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
Neither D.W. Griffith nor Oliver Stone, the filmmakers are incapable of infusing history with soap opera immediacy. A backbeat of Christian sacrifice notwithstanding, the magnitude of the event overshadows the three stars (plus Cuba Gooding Jr.'s bone-throw turn as a ship's cook who boxes for his self-respect). Indeed, Beckinsale brought down the house at the heavily papered all-media screening with an explanation of her post-bombing mind-set. "I'm pregnant and I didn't even know until the day you turned up alive and then all this happened." Entwined as it is with the national self-image, the meaning of Pearl Harbor will necessarily be made by the audience.
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