Disney's 'Pearl Harbor': Will the expensive film be a hit?

By Josh Young
Updated May 11, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

As Disney gets ready to launch its $140 million Pearl Harbor, the most expensive movie ever greenlit, it’s time to ask the question: Is America’s 21-gun salute to the Greatest Generation coming to a close? Three years ago, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan sparked a cottage industry of flag-waving valedictories in books, websites, and TV specials (mostly from Tom Brokaw), not to mention talk of a WWII cable channel. But last month, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd suggested that praise for the sacrificing warriors who saved democracy might be ”getting a little out of hand…. We encouraged our parents to stop being so modest and share their stories. Now they can’t stop gushing and celebrating themselves.”

Preparing a Memorial Day assault on multiplexes, Disney is showing signs that it’s unwittingly adopted Dowd’s message. Both at home and abroad, the studio’s marketing team seems to be stealing a page not from the Ryan battle plan but from the Titanic survivor manual. Forget historical issues, political ramifications, and moral quandaries. What’s important here is the epic-scale love triangle between Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, and Kate Beckinsale. As Pearl producer Jerry Bruckheimer says, ”You sell the romance.”

Thus far, the studio hasn’t courted World War II veterans in the way that Spielberg & Co. did. ”Saving Private Ryan took advantage of the opportunity to deal with veterans who felt they weren’t spoken for,” says Mark Gordon, one of Ryan‘s producers. To that end, Spielberg and star Tom Hanks cut the ribbon at the D-Day Museum and supported the building of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. (The director also received a special honor, the Spirit of Normandy Award, from the American Legion.) In contrast, Disney contacted the 2.8-million-member American Legion about using the cover of the organization’s magazine in Pearl — but never followed up. And Bob Kronberger, former president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, says he consulted on the script and visited the set but was disappointed that Disney asked him to pay his own way to the $5 million gala premiere on an aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor. ”I don’t want to spend $2,000 for my wife and me to see a movie,” he says.

Of course, given its Pentagon-style cost, Pearl must enlist a wider audience in its box office campaign than the $65 million-budgeted Ryan. In fact, director Michael Bay needs to outgross his previous blockbuster, the $135 million Armageddon. (Despite a $550 million worldwide haul, that film was reportedly only modestly profitable due to marketing and production costs.) And unlike most buck-burning productions, Pearl won’t be able to defray marketing costs with alternative revenue sources like fast-food tie-ins. ”They can’t really have McNuggets with kamikaze sauce,” says Chris Pula, Disney’s former president of marketing. ”It will be interesting to see if they can pull this puppy off.”

Even if the film wins over audiences on the home front, how will a potentially jingoistic love story told against the backdrop of the most brutal attack on American soil play abroad? That’s a critical question, since foreign ticket sales accounted for two thirds of Titanic‘s record $1.8 billion gross.

Pearl Harbor

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 183 minutes
  • Michael Bay