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Review: Empty yet oddly captivating depiction of naval attack

Pearl Harbor is a tacky succession of love scenes interlarded with the glossiest war footage hundreds of millions of dollars can produce. I wanted to hate this movie for its cornball lines and plot and computer-generated effects, and was irritated with myself when I felt it tingling my spine and getting me in the gut. The action is not realistic and the emotion is not convincing, but the allure of train station partings and dogfights over the ocean, and the power of an attack that saw 3,000 die, many drowned in sunken battleships, was enough, at times, to entertain.
The film opens with two boys with the apple-pie-and-baseball names Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker tinkering with a crop-duster. When Danny's dad catches them and slaps Danny, Rafe shouts at him that he is a dirty German. The man swallows hard and gazes out over the amber waves of grain. "I fought the Germans in World War I," he says. "I saw things I hope you boys never see."


Cuba Gooding Jr. (left) is another big acting talent wasted in this stiffly patriotic tribute to US war dead.
photo: Courtesy Saturn Entertainment

Pearl Harbor

Running time: 183 minutes
Starring: Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale
Playing in Bratislava at: Istropolis cinema
Rating: 4 out of 10

Pearl Harbor is a tacky succession of love scenes interlarded with the glossiest war footage hundreds of millions of dollars can produce. I wanted to hate this movie for its cornball lines and plot and computer-generated effects, and was irritated with myself when I felt it tingling my spine and getting me in the gut. The action is not realistic and the emotion is not convincing, but the allure of train station partings and dogfights over the ocean, and the power of an attack that saw 3,000 die, many drowned in sunken battleships, was enough, at times, to entertain.

The film opens with two boys with the apple-pie-and-baseball names Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker tinkering with a crop-duster. When Danny's dad catches them and slaps Danny, Rafe shouts at him that he is a dirty German. The man swallows hard and gazes out over the amber waves of grain. "I fought the Germans in World War I," he says. "I saw things I hope you boys never see."

Alas, dad's grave words go unheeded, and the boys become hot-shot pilots with the U.S. on the verge of World War II. Rafe (Ben Affleck) is so cocky he volunteers to join a squadron of foreigners fighting in the Battle of Britain. Danny (Josh Hartnett) is heartbroken, as is Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a nurse who met Rafe a month before in a bit of slapstick romance involving her giving him a shot in his naked rump and his fainting.

Rafe writes that "England is cold... but I stay warm thinking of you." Evelyn responds from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, "Every day I try to draw the last heat from the sunset and send it to you." But Rafe goes down in the Atlantic, and by the time he makes it back to Hawaii to tell Evelyn he is alive, she and Danny have already exchanged their own romance-novel lines. Now Evelyn loves Danny, and Rafe hates Danny.

The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor looms. The Japanese and American military brass seem to know we are listening, and want to ensure the script's foreshadowing hits its mark. Japanese officer to higher-up: "We have completed our training for the super secret Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor." American strategist to general: "I have a crazy hunch the Japanese are planning a super secret attack on Pearl Harbor." General: "Pearl Harbor! Why that would devastate our pacific forces!"

Alas, the Japanese do attack Pearl Harbor, and in so doing launch the film's 40-minute centrepiece. But unlike recent films that attained a horrifying accuracy in depicting war (Saving Private Ryan, Thin Red Line), the action here is more like a video game - the sparks and pings of stray bullets are a bit too sharp and the thunder and fire of the bombs too crisp and bright. Yet shots of falling bombs - from fighter hatch to ship hull - are exhilarating. And scenes of nurses performing triage on the dying, shots of men drowning - and knowing well in advance they will drown - are invariably moving.

Beckinsdale plays the role of nurse and lover with guts and glamour despite lines such as, "Oh Rafe, I'm gonna give my whole heart to Danny, but I'll never look at a sunset without thinking of you." Affleck's shoulders and spiky hair make for a good soldier-boy look, and Hartnett's farm-boy gape hits the right guilty note in the love triangle scenes.

Heroes following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and with the U.S. and Japan now officially at war, Danny and Rafe are selected for a daredevil attack on Tokyo. Evelyn, secretly pregnant with Danny's child, waits nervously in Hawaii. Will her boys make it back alive? Will they both perish? Or will only one die, and if so, which one?

While the answers didn't matter much to me, I still stuck around to hear them. Pearl Harbor is a sleek, empty film, but if you're a complete sucker for war movies, it has its moments.

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