(This is a flashback to a review I wrote back in June of 2001 - though, I feel the whole thing is still as valid today as it was when I wrote it originally.)
Directed by wunderkind director Michael Bay (Armageddon), from a screenplay by Randall Wallace (Braveheart), Pearl Harbor is three hours of soft focus, earth tones and high octane CGI. It is loosely based on the true story of a big battle and the lives of some little people. Sometime in the 1900's, which would be in the 20th century (I understand the math in that equation, but I still find it strange), there was a big war. This big war happened after an earlier big war, but before two smaller more politically incorrect wars (this of course does not include countless other wars that get little to no marketing attention from Hollywood).
The movie itself is like an unholy melding of two previous non-Irwin Allen disaster movies. Josh Hartnett is saddled with the Titanic Leonardo di Caprio role of the overly earnest and doomed suitor Danny. Ben Affleck reprises his Ben Affleck role from Armageddon, only this time his name is Rafe (pronounced Rafe). Kate Beckinsale has the thankless job of portraying both the betrothed dreamer that falls for the doe-eyed romantic and the dedicated beauty that is left behind by her rugged, duty-comes-first he-man, with an American accent – all due respect to Ms Winslett and Ms Tyler, Kate Beckinsale moves to the head of the class. (Slightly off topic, with regard to Liv Tyler - yeah, she is very attractive, and I am looking forward to seeing her in the Lord of the Rings movies, but, call me shallow if you must, I just can't get past the fact that she is Steven Tyler's daughter. There is something extremely unsettling about that whole gene pool.)
We follow this mixed-marriage of angst and true love through the tumultuous events leading up to the surprise attack on the film’s namesake, and then on past that, because you cannot end a 180 million dollar movie on a down note. In today’s big budget Hollywood, it is advisable to at least give a nod of the head to the old standby plot devices of “Revenge”, “Just Desserts” and “Comeuppance”. So, we have the chance to see Doolittle and his Raiders strike back and get one for Old Glory.
It is the great tragedy of modern Hollywood that stories that need room to be told are forced into a ninety minute time frame and stories of no great depth are stretched to three hours. And that a movie named after an infamous and historically vital battle would spend little time actually exploring the dynamics of that very battle. You would think that, somewhere along the chain of command involved in green-lighting this movie, someone would have looked at the script and then looked at a history book and made a decision at that point on which kind of film they wanted to make: a ninety minute Actioner with a dash of sex appeal or a three hour character piece with an intelligent depiction of a very dark day in our national history.
Either way, the movie was poorly cast in its main roles (except for Kate). The MTV stunt casting popularized by stuff like Young Guns is alive and well here. The supporting roles were passably filled by second tier celebrities. I fear we will never have a Hollywood roundtable like that of the fifties and sixties, when ensemble casts were ensemble casts with true weight. The closest we have probably gotten to the heydays of large cast films was most likely The Thin Red Line.
Actually, if it were up to me, I would raid the casting sheet of Thin Red Line for a mini-series take at Pearl Harbor. Can you imagine John Cusack as Rafe, cocky, dedicated fighter pilot? Kate Beckinsale as Evelyn, of course; his RN love. Jason Lee as Danny, the best friend; always the runner-up. I was thinking of James Caviezel, but really, Jason Lee should be in every movie. John Savage could pull off a pretty decent FDR with a little better makeup job than the one that Jon Voight had. George Clooney as Lt. Colonel Doolittle (Clooney is always better than his material). And Pat Morita could use a meaty role such as Admiral Yamamoto. He is highly undervalued and type cast all too often as the little, funny Asian guy that knows martial arts.
I would split the relationship part up; add a new love interest for Danny (Jason Lee). Spread it out over 4 nights, with the attack on Pearl Harbor happening at the end of the second night. The third night would deal with the aftermath, and the fourth night would lead up to the reprisal strike by Doolittle's Raiders on Tokyo, finishing it off with a look ahead at a very uncertain future. Michael Bay (Bad Boys) can still direct the battle scenes.
Now, if I were to do the ninety minute Actioner, I would have to go in a whole other direction as far as the casting. Think Under Siege in World War II. Steven Segal as the grizzled cook/fighter pilot named Rafe, assigned to the USS Enterprise docked in Pearl Harbor. Gary Busey as Danny, Rafe's best friend and co-pilot. Danny is secretly in love with Rafe's best girl, Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale). Evelyn is the all-American girl – she volunteers for the USO and is a registered Nurse with the US Army. And Tommy Lee Jones in a dual role, under heavy makeup, as both our beloved President FDR and Admiral Yamamoto.
Rafe and Yamamoto are old prep school chums, but after a misunderstanding, in which Yamamoto believes Rafe stole his girl in 8th grade, they have not spoken since. Yamamoto learns that Rafe is stationed on the USS Enterprise and plans his revenge. He dispatches his spies, who go to work on a self-esteem depleted Danny. Danny, out of his misplaced desire for Evelyn, helps the Japanese spies to capture her. Yamamoto uses her as bait to lure Rafe out to the harbor just as his men attack from the skies. The battle climaxes as Danny realizes his mistake and helps Evelyn escape, but pays with his life. And Rafe and Yamamoto meet mano-a-mano (actually from the Italian meaning, literally, 'hand to hand') on the top deck of the ship in a spine-tingling knife fight, with bombs exploding all around them as the ship starts to go down. Rafe, in an amazing move right out of the movies, catches Yamamoto's knife and now with two knives, defeats his enemy and long lost chum. With the ship sinking faster and faster, Rafe grabs Evelyn and they run to the back of the ship as it prepares to go under and..... well, I don't want to give it all away. Suffice it to say that the finale would be beautiful in soft focus, earth tones and high octane CGI.
Anyway, that is what I think.
At this point, in the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I have not yet seen Pearl Harbor. I think I have seen all of Armageddon, but am not sure, since it was not in one sitting. And I believe I have seen almost one half of Titanic.