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USA 2001
Directed by
Michael Bay
183 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Pearl Harbor

It’s a pity that producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s and director Michael Bay’s lavish account of the infamous attack on Pearl Harbour on the morning of December 7, 1941 is equally infamous as an instance of turgid over-production (with a budget of $140 million it was the most expensive motion picture ever green-lit by a studio, Disney in its case, to that date). Not that the criticism is undeserved, it is, but in addition to the consistent high technical standards there are some parts of value to it. These all have to do with the actual account of the events leading up to the bombing and the attack itself, a graphic 35 minute depiction of the near total destruction of the U.S. Pacific fleet.  These aspects however are dissipated by the hyper-ventilated flag-waving heroics, particularly in the latter part of the film, and the over-cooked epic tone which inflates the non-combative elements to overbearing proportions.  Had this film stuck to the history as did 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! which also dealt with the events depicted here, but in a much more rigorous way, or at least pulled back on the hectoring manipulation it might have been a much better film (the scenes in which the Japanese bomb the Pearl Harbour military hospital were pure fiction but were. by Bay's own admission, included to make the attack seem more barbaric).

Based on a script by Randall Wallace, writer of two other fatuous multiplex historical romances, Braveheart (1995) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), the film interweaves the story of the Japanese attack with that of a couple of handsome, young flyboys (Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett), best friends since their boyhoods as a couple of hayseeds, and their love for a beautiful nurse (Kate Beckinsale). The pity is that not only does the three-way romance constitute about two-thirds of the running time but it is dished up in such a soft-focussed cinematically prettified manner that it never comes close to the credibility of James Cameron’s Titanic which it is clearly trying to emulate if not outpace.  

If there is too much padding in getting the story going, so that by the thirty minute mark one is already feeling over-stuffed with big-budget production values, there is a final post-Pearl Harbour section which is pure over-kill  as the Americans set off on a mission of righteous revenge (in hindsight the film looks like a post 9/11 propaganda piece, although that iconic event did not occur until a few months after the film's releasse. Clearly Bin Laden didn't see the film or he might have taken note of the Japanese commander Admiral Yamamoto's wise words: "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant").

A nearly-unrecognizable Jon Voight appears as Franklin D. Roosevelt, a portly Dan Aykroyd appears in one of his typical over-serious fuddy-duddy roles, Ewen Bremner makes an atypical appearance as a stammering flyboy, and Michael Shannon has his highest profile exposure to date as a co-pilot




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