There was every reason to expect that Pearl Harbor, the popcorn apocalypse du jour from producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay, would be fashioned according to the same glibly kaleidoscopic, reality be damned aesthetic that marked their previous collaborations, ”Bad Boys,” ”The Rock,” and ”Armageddon” — the same ”We will rock you” school of high zap overkill, in other words, that we pesky critics keep complaining about. (I know, you don’t have to tell me: It’s only a movie.) ”Pearl Harbor” got made, on the basest level, because it’s the story of a planet-shaking historical event in which stuff blowed up real good.
But the film, while just about programmed to rule at the box office, isn’t a cheesy and decadent fast cut entertainment; the surprise is that it may be the squarest event movie in years. An indulgently paced three hours, the picture is nearly painstaking in its traditionalism, a tale of love, war, and valor in which nostalgia for ”simpler times” gets mashed together, almost fetishistically, with nostalgia for old movies and for the spirit of knightly self sacrifice during World War II that ”Saving Private Ryan” and Tom Brokaw helped make fashionable again.
When the Japanese, roughly 90 minutes in, commence their surprise attack on the U.S. Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Bay’s staging is spectacular but also honorable in its scary, hurtling exactitude. Buzzing fighter planes darken the early morning Hawaiian sky, shooting past a sandlot baseball game and a woman stringing her clothesline, the bombers as ominous as the flying monkeys in ”The Wizard of Oz.”
There are startling point of view shots of torpedoes dropping into the water and speeding toward their targets, and though Bay visualizes it all with a minimum of graphic carnage, he invites us to register the terror of the men standing helplessly on deck, the horrifying split second deliverance as bodies go flying and explosions reduce entire battleships to liquid walls of collapsing metal. I doubt that any studio system picture — or, for that matter, one made during the ’70s — could have summoned the shocking vastness of the human devastation that occurred on Dec. 7, 1941, with the poetic immediacy of ”Pearl Harbor.”
Ben Affleck has the right keen spirit to play a fearless romantic flyboy, but, in a role that might have been designed for Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, and James Stewart combined, he never quite transcends his contempo allure to conjure the gravity, the private inner space, that would allow us to connect with the quiet heart of Rafe’s daredevil nobility. Affleck does, however, strike sparks with the avid eyed, ruby lipped Kate Beckinsale, the rare actress whose intelligence gives her a sensual bloom; she’s like Parker Posey without irony.
The fusion of romance and historical cataclysm was obviously inspired by ”Titanic,” but in that impassioned saga, the disaster enlarged and deepened the love story; what would have been a tremulous teenage fling became timeless precisely because it was frozen in time. In ”Pearl Harbor,” disaster dwarfs the lives of the people around it, and so we sit through much of the inflated story knowing that the film, in essence, is killing time.