This is two movies in one. With "Titanic" as a role model, recreations of major event movies must be stories told through the eyes and feelings of characters we get to know and care about. Thus, an 80 minute love story as a prologue to what the movie is about, the Japanese attack on our Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii -- the event that brought the United States into World War II.
The romantic tale is a Harlequin novel about two buddies and a girl. Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) are boyhood pals growing up in farm country and playing at flying dad's crop duster. Adults now, they join the air force and meet young nurses. Rafe is taken by the most beautiful of them all, Lieutenant Evelyn Stewart (Kate Beckinsale) who soon responds to his attentions by falling for the guy. The fly in the ointment is the fact that Rafe has volunteered for the Royal Air Force to fight the Germans and he ships out the next day. That is one quick romance, but it's enough for lifetime commitments.
Rafe is shot down and presumed dead and, after three months or so of grieving, Evelyn is convinced she must "move on". That move is into the arms of best friend Danny who, it must be said, has the charm and boyish good looks of Gary Cooper. Grieving for Rafe is over for both of them and they are too mutually attracted to avoid falling into each other's arms merely because of their dead friend. Only Rafe isn't dead. He was rescued and now returns only to find the woman whose love guided his survival in the arms and heart of his pal. If this sounds like melodrama it's because it is.
Amidst the emotional turmoil, with suspicions that the Japanese were planning something but with no idea it would turn out to be an attack on Pearl Harbor, our three love-embroiled officers along with the rest of the base rise one Sunday morning to the sound of planes, bombs and hell breaking loose. Ships are sunk, 3,000 military are killed, casualties spilling guts everywhere, and a shocked, embarrassed nation that is about to rise up to the words of President Franklin Roosevelt to avenge this hellish act of deception.
The date is December 7th 1941, "a date that will live in infamy" in Roosevelt's words. And it does, to this day, for all those who lived through it. The principle value in this film is to bring the facts of such danger America lived through in those years to a modern audience below the age of 60 to whom it is a mere event in history.
The extent of unexpected terror from the skies and tableaus of destruction are depicted with some awkward digital fabrication as well as properly violent ferocity. For some, this will be worth the price of admission if they don't gag on the romance part or the forties take on a military nursing unit that would be perfectly at home at a Playboy bash.
There are some who will leave the theatre hoping never to have to sit through another 3 hours of Ben Affleck's uni-dimensional expression. When he returns "from the dead" (shades of "Cast Away") one could almost hear, "Oh, nooooo" echoing around the theatre.
During the attack, our two flyboys manage to reach one of the smaller bases on Pearl Harbor and get their two planes in the air just before the base is destroyed. Heroically, they down 13 or so Japanese zeros. They then get assigned to Colonel Jimmy Doolittle's Raiders (Alec Baldwin) for a never-before attempted raid on Tokyo at the tasking of President Roosevelt. The romantic part gets sorted out but for any further details you'll have to go see the movie.
We, in fact, urge you to see it -- for what history it affords. The film may have been green lighted in the first place as a historical event to support a top star love story, but its value is in the limited presentation of the event and how the United States was lulled into thinking it could remain pacifist when Hitler invaded Europe -- only to be stunned into action by enemy deception. No matter how nicely wrapped this love story is and how nice it makes you feel as you leave the theatre, don't you be lulled into associating such feelings with the horror of the attack on our real sailers and our ships. There was nothing feel-good about it.
But, let "Pearl Harbor" do good boxoffice and be a reminder, in a pop wrapping, of how our freedoms were once threatened and how our role in the world changed. The lesson of the events is that the U.S. can't stay out of conflicts just because they're happening somewhere else. What threatens one country threatens all. Roosevelt learned that. We learned that. Ergo NATO, the UN, Dessert Storm, Kosovo.
The cast has the right stuff to meet the requirements set forth by director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Armageddon", "Con Air", "The Rock").
Estimated cost: $140,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $195,000,000.
Rated A for Actual (history).