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Pearl Harbor Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2001


Pearl Harbor movie poster

The seeds for the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 were sewn many decades, almost a century, prior to the 'Day of Infamy'. During the latter half of the 1800s, Japan entered a period of social, political, and industrial reform, known as the Meiji Restoration. By adopting more Western-style government and institutions, the Japanese government hoped to achieve greater autonomy in its foreign affairs, which had, up until that point, been dictated by Americans and Europeans, through a series of inequitable treaties-- a similar experience to that of all Asian countries at the time.

By the turn of the century, these reforms were successful and Japan was granted full diplomatic equality by the Western powers. In order to 'play on the level' of its new peers, Japan initiated its first phase of political expansion, which was aimed at strengthening its national security through the acquisition of colonial territories, thereby creating a 'buffer zone' around itself, similar to how the British and French had solidified their presence in Asia through their colonial empires. The first target of this expansionism was Korea, which belonged to China at the time. Because both Korea and China lacked a strong industrial and military base, it was felt that Korea could easily be conquered by another Western power, such as Russia, which would create an immediate threat to Japan's sovereignty. Thus, Japan invaded Korea under the pretext of quelling a peasant rebellion, triggering the First Sino-Japanese War, in which the modern Japanese army and navy emerged victoriously over the ill-equipped Chinese forces. As a result of the war and the subsequent Treaty of Shimonoseki, Japan acquired its first colonial territories, which included Taiwan, and gained the same favorable treaty privileges in China that its new American and European peers had.

The attack on Pearl Harbor, as realized by Michael Bay

In the decades that followed, Japan continued to solidify its power base in Asia, making it the newest superpower. In the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan gained full control over Korea, annexing the country in 1911 as Chosun and installing a repressive administration. The First World War saw Japan fighting alongside Britain and its allies, which afforded the opportunity to seize German-held territories in China and South Pacific. Japan also benefited from the economic windfall of the war, supplying arms and other manufactured goods to the Allies, while taking advantage of the decline in Western trade with other Asian countries.

The first phase of expansion ceased during the 1920s, as the Japanese government became a founding member of the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) and signed a number of treaties aimed at preserving peace in Asia. Unfortunately, the peace would be short-lived, as Japan found itself embroiled in a series of recessions (including the Great Depression), as well as social unrest and political instability during the 1930s. Like the Nazi government in Germany, in order to remedy its economic distress, the Japanese military began its second phase of political expansion as a means of acquiring natural resources and economic opportunities for the Japanese people.

At that time, there was concern over the rise of a new nationalist movement in China, led by Chiang Kai-shek, who worked with the Chinese Communist Party to put an end to foreign influence on China's affairs. It was feared that if this nationalist movement was successful, it would eventually lead to the union of a pro-Communist China and the USSR-- Japan's two former enemies. Thus, in 1931, under the pretext of a terrorist attack on a railroad, Japanese forces began to occupy Manchuria, gaining access to its large tracts of iron and coal. Despite protestations from the United States and Britain, Japan continued its expansion into China. This laid the groundwork for the Second Sino-Japanese War, which was triggered in 1937 by a clash between a Chinese patrol and Japanese troops outside of Beijing. Within a year, Japan had conquered much of northern China, including Shanghai, Beijing, and Nanjing.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Japan was still deep into its campaign in China, and was in dire need of new supplies of oil, metal, and rubber to fuel its continuing war effort. The United States, which had not yet entered the war, sympathized with China, and in order to pressure Japan into pulling out of China, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt began a series of escalating embargoes on oil and steel. This eventually became a complete embargo when Japan invaded Indochina in July of 1941, a move that was followed by the British Commonwealth and the Dutch East Indies. Without the vital supplies of oil, the Japanese military could not continue its war effort. Furthermore, any attempts to acquire the rich natural resources of Southeast Asia and the Pacific would result in a response from the US Pacific Fleet.

Thus, in September of that year, instead of 'losing face' on the global stage to the Western powers that Japan had worked so hard to become their equal, the Japanese government pursued continued peace negotiations while surreptitiously preparing for war. Thus, the stage was set for the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th of that year, in which the Japanese naval and air force dealt a devastating blow to the American military base on Oahu Island, Hawaii. However, it was only part of an orchestrated global campaign, as the Japanese also launched concurrent attacks on the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand, and a number of islands in the South Pacific that day.

Kate Beckinsale and Ben Affleck

Now, six decades after that fateful day, "Pearl Harbor" is once again at the center of the world stage, only this time as a three-hour opus to capture the hearts and minds of moviegoers everywhere. A product of the Michael Bay-Jerry Bruckheimer movie-machine (who last collaborated on "Armageddon"), this $135 million Second World War special effects extravaganza is undoubtedly a technically-polished recreation of the catastrophe that brought the United States into the Second World War. Unfortunately, "Pearl Harbor" is also burdened with a tepid script that has little to say, other than to glorify the carnage as a video game and over-simplify the moral and historical context in which the story takes place.

"Pearl Harbor" takes your standard 'boy-meets-girl' love story and sets it against the titular historical canvas, à la "Titanic". Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck of "Bounce") and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett of "Halloween H20: 20 Years Later") are lifelong friends who aspire to be pilots, which they do in 1941. While training in Long Island, the eager Rafe volunteers to fight for the British as part of the English Eagle Squadron, leaving behind his best friend, as well as Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale of "The Last Days of Disco"), a nurse he has fallen in love with.

Not long after, Danny and Evelyn are shipped off to Pearl Harbor, which they seem to treat as a vacation resort, oblivious to the mounting Japanese-American tensions in the Pacific. Being in such close quarters, and brought together by personal tragedy, Danny and Evelyn begin a relationship in Rafe's absence, establishing a love triangle that will play itself out in the rest of the film. Meanwhile, the film offers up some brief token scenes to illustrate why Japan feels compelled to attack Pearl Harbor, the Japanese war preparations led by Admiral Yamamoto (Mako of "Riot in the Streets") and his military strategist Genda (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa of "The Art of War"), Japanese espionage activities in Oahu, and the divisions within American naval intelligence as to where and when hostilities will break out.

Affleck and Josh Hartnett

Then, about 80 minutes into the film is a 35-minute long CGI-enhanced recreation of the attack. No expense is spared to show the carnage inflicted by the attack, in which 3000 people lost their lives and where the bulk of the Pacific Fleet was either sunk or badly crippled. This is then followed by the film's third act, focusing on Jimmy Doolittle's (Alec Baldwin of "State and Main") famous bombing raid on Tokyo a scant four months after Pearl Harbor.

"Pearl Harbor" is certainly filled with breathtaking moments, such as the sight of several Japanese planes zooming towards their targets set against the backdrop of Oahu's lush mountains, the fire-and-brimstone devastation unleashed by the attack, and the 'Tokyo Raiders' descending upon their targets in the heart of Tokyo. In order to realize these action set pieces, Bay, Bruckheimer, Affleck, and other key figures in the production scaled back their salaries such that these epic scenes could be left intact without the film going over-budget. If there are any aspects in which "Pearl Harbor" would get Oscar nods, it would most likely be in special effects and other such technical areas.

Hartnett, Affleck, and Alec Baldwin

Unfortunately, Michael Bay's penchant for quick editing and excessive camera movement does a disservice to the grandiose epic he aspires to create here. While such MTV filmmaking suited the milieu of his previous actioners "Bad Boys", "The Rock", and "Armageddon", they do not fit well in the context of a sweeping historical epic. Instead of lingering on the more momentous scenes, allowing the audience to digest the significance of what they are witnessing, only snapshots and sound bites are offered before the camera focuses on something else. One such stumble is in the aforementioned scene in which the Zeros race through an alley towards the military base-- such a powerful scene ends up getting cut short because of Bay's machine-gun style.

In addition, the script is not up to the challenge of telling a compelling, emotionally-resonant, and meaningful story. The most obvious shortcoming is in the characters, which are essentially generic constructs with little in the way of character development and given nothing of interest to say. As a result, most of the dialogue in the film serves a functional purpose by moving the story along with the requisite exposition, without shedding any light on what these characters aspire to be, other than Rafe, who seems hell-bent on 'going to war'. At least in "Titanic", Rose's journey towards independence gave the story an emotional hook, and Jack's heartfelt desire to help Rose in this journey made the film's climax so touching.

Cuba Gooding Jr.

The historical and sociopolitical context of the Pearl Harbor attack is also lost, despite the film having three hours in which to present it. The most obvious historical gaffe would be the scenes of Americana that Bay uses in the prelude to the attack-- boy scouts tromping through the mountains, a woman hanging up the wash, little league baseball, and children playing. This of course, is all going on at 7:30am on a Sunday morning, when the attack began.

However, what is even more troubling is how scribe Randall Wallace (whose writing credits include "The Man in the Iron Mask") has glossed over the entire historical context in which the story takes place. American society was much more insular back then, with every ethnic minority facing discrimination of some sort-- the Italians, the Chinese, the Jews, and of, course, the African-Americans. Yes, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was wrong, but the sentiments of superiority that helped fuel the Japanese expansionist policies were not too far removed from what was going on in the Americans' own backyard. For example, the treatment of African-Americans at the time, both in American society as well as the military, was rife with inequity and prejudice, yet this is considerably toned-down with the presentation of the treatment of Dorie Miller (Cuba Gooding Jr., seen recently in "Men of Honor"), who was the first African-American to win the Naval Cross. Furthermore, the opposition faced by Roosevelt (John Voight of "Enemy of the State") in both Congress and public opinion in entering the Second World War is omitted, as is the motivation for the Japanese attack is glossed over (particularly why there are Japanese soldiers in China).

In comparison to "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Thin Red Line", what "Pearl Harbor" also lacks is any moral ambiguity. The issues are presented in a manner that are completely black and white, with little debate or internal conflict arising from deciding what is right or wrong. The Americans are presented as doing nothing but good, while Japanese are unabashedly evil, draining the story of the moral complexities that often arise during war. For example, in "Saving Private Ryan", though it was very clear that the Americans were the heroes, there were many moments of doubt. The shooting of surrendering German soldiers in cold blood by victorious American troops, the debate over the justification of sending eight men to rescue one as part of some PR initiative, and the choice on whether or not to execute a captured German soldier created much of the story's tension and internal conflict.

Think of how much more interesting and compelling "Pearl Harbor" would have been had one of the main characters in the love triangle been Japanese-American, finding themselves suddenly torn between their ancestral roots and their loyalties as an American, while facing persecution from their former friends and colleagues? Or what if the story had been told in a non-linear fashion, with Doolittle's surprise bombing raid on Tokyo being paralleled with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, contrasting two military actions that only had a few degrees of moral distinction?

In terms of performances, Bay has gathered together a number of recognizable names to populate "Pearl Harbor". The biggest splash would have to go to Beckinsale, who got the role of Evelyn after Charlize Theron turned it down to do "Sweet November". With the poise and screen presence of a screen icon straight out of the Forties, Beckinsale turns in a surprisingly effective performance despite her shallowly-defined character. Though heartthrobs Affleck and Hartnet are charming, their characters are probably the least interesting on the screen, who are obsessed with flying and little else. Voight paints a credible portrait of Roosevelt, though some of the grandiose speeches he gives sound a bit too scripted, while Gooding Jr. and Balwin are both likable and earnest in their roles. Rounding out the cast are a number of familiar faces, including Dan Aykroyd ("Grosse Pointe Blank") as a military analyst who suspects the imminent Japanese attack, Tom Sizemore ("Saving Private Ryan") as a mouthy mechanic, and Colm Feore ("City of Angels") as the much-maligned Admiral Kimmel, who was blamed by an inquiry for the losses at Pearl Harbor.

With all the hype that has been built up in the past few months, many moviegoers will probably find "Pearl Harbor" to be disappointing, both as a piece of pure summer moviegoing entertainment, and also as a historical drama. Though the special effects are certainly impressive, the oversimplified and uninteresting script, rife with missed opportunities, reduce this watershed moment of the Second World War into a numbing video game, bereft of historical context, meaning, and emotional resonance. But if you go see "Pearl Harbor" anyways and come out of the theater wanting more, then an excellent piece of companion viewing would be the 1970 film "Tora! Tora! Tora!", which spends its time dramatizing how Japanese and American actions and mistakes led to the 'Day of Infamy', instead of squandering it on a lukewarm romance.

Images courtesy of Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.


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