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.”
But that’s a problem, too: Compared to the verisimilitude of the bombing, the film’s sturdy melodramatic tropes seem all the more synthetic, its romantic triangle amounting to a relatively minor hill of beans. Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) grow up in the sun-dappled Tennessee cornfields, bound like brothers by their love of flying, and the two become pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. It’s Rafe’s romance with a volunteer nurse, Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), that sets the clichés spinning, as we move from an overly cute induction checkup featuring much flirtatious mischief with a hypodermic needle to will-she-get-to-the-train-station-on-time farewell as Rafe heads off to fight the European air war.
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 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. When Rafe, shot out of the sky, is presumed dead, Evelyn takes up with Danny, but the secondary love affair is just unconvincing filler.
It’s not until the final third that the Bruckheimer-Bay arc truly kicks in. The Americans, you see, haven’t simply been caught off guard at Pearl Harbor. They’ve been shamed, robbed of their dignity and military superiority. It’s up to men like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, impersonated with crusty gallantry by Jon Voight, and the fearless young fliers, training for the first U.S. bombing raid on Tokyo, to restore that glory. (It’s also up to men like Col. James H. Doolittle, played by Alec Baldwin with a gravel-voiced stentorian high-mindedness that makes him sound a step away from the loony bin.) The retaliatory bombing is just as gripping as the attack on Pearl Harbor, but by then, we realize that we’re watching an epic of payback. That, of course, is intrinsic to the nature of war, and there’s surely nothing wrong with a little old-fashioned righteous entertainment, or, for that matter, this big a heap of it. But I’m not sure that the panoramic flag-waving simplicities of ”Pearl Harbor,” even for three escapist hours, succeed in sweeping us off to a place where we ever quite believe in them.