Pearl Harbor (2001)

*. Pearl Harbor has caught a lot of flack (to use an appropriate metaphor) for having what is considered one of the stupidest lines in movie history. As the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and chaos reigns, ace pilot Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) exclaims “I think World War Two just started!”
*. Of course, by December 7, 1941 World War Two had been in full swing for a couple of years, and most historians today would backdate it even further. And while I’d cut the character of Danny some slack by saying it’s clear in context that he means the Second World War has come to America, it’s still surprising he expresses himself this way as we’ve seen him watching newsreels of the war in Europe and Asia, and we also know that his best buddy Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) is fighting overseas flying for the RAF. But no matter. For Danny the war has just started, and that’s what counts.
*. In other words, I really don’t think it’s quite as stupid a line as it’s accused of being. That said, Pearl Harbor has plenty of genuine native American dopiness to spare. But why? Tora! Tora! Tora! came out in 1970 and is widely credited for its historical accuracy and (a Japanese-American co-production) balance. Then thirty years later Hollywood came out with this confection, which makes a hash of history and is filled with jingoistic applause lines. Had America gotten dumber as well as more nationalistic? Note that this movie came out just before 9/11, so all the rah-rah stuff wasn’t in response to that.
*. Some of the change was just Hollywood being Hollywood. And with Michael Bay at the helm you can take what you think that means and double it. There is a story built around a romantic triangle, with Danny and Rafe vying for the love of beautiful nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale). In contrast, I think there was only a single speaking female part in Tora! Tora! Tora! (the flight instructor, who was a real historical figure). The other big change here is the happy ending, because after the attack on Pearl there’s an extended second half that deals with the Doolittle raid. Because let’s face it, you couldn’t end a movie on such a downer note as the U.S. Pacific Fleet sinking in shallow water. Even the producers of Tora! Tora! Tora! knew that was going to be a tough sell, and it was.

*. Finally, there’s lots of CGI action and things being blown up. This was state-of-the-art in 2001, and still looks OK in the usual artificial sort of way today (though the planes seem to me to be flying much too fast when we’re in the cockpit). But of course today you can also play games online that are equally impressive visually. Personally, I was more impressed at the propeller rolling across the tarmac after the plane explodes in Tora! Tora! Tora! than I was by any of the pyrotechnics here.
*. I don’t know, but video games might even come with better dialogue too. What we get here is sappy True Romance stuff alternating with Men in Combat cheer lines. When Danny and Rafe take to the skies in their P-40s the dogfight is punctuated with lines like “We’re ain’t gonna let these sons of bitches get home!” “How do you like someone shooting back at you?” “Come on! Come on!” “Oh, I’m on your ass now!” “Yeah! I got one!” “Whoa!” and “I got you, you son of a bitch!” Meanwhile, Cuba Gooding Jr. brings the fire down below playing a ship’s cook who’s not allowed to fire the big guns (boo!) but then gets his chance when the Japs attack (yay!).

*. Now I don’t doubt that people in the heat of battle say things like this, but they aren’t meant to be realistic here so much as to provide the action equivalent to a sitcom’s laugh track. You’re supposed to pump your fist along with all this action, and for all I know audiences did. Even the sailors cheer along in cutaway shots, and FDR gets up out of his wheelchair in the ultimate act of courage and defiance. Mein Führer, I can walk!
*. Twenty years later I don’t think this movie registers in people’s minds much at all, having joined most of the rest of Michael Bay’s forgettable output. The only thing that impresses is the handsomeness of Hartnett and Affleck, who, to give them their due, never looked better. But at just over three hours this is a trial to get through, stuffed as it is with corn and claptrap. It did good box office though, which brings me back to the only really interesting thought I had watching it: were audiences getting dumber? Or was it just our movies?

16 thoughts on “Pearl Harbor (2001)

  1. fragglerocking

    Michael Bay’s a boy isn’t he? And knows how to do a great cheesy movie. I don’t suppose he cares about oscars much with that bank balance, or accurate history. It was nice to watch Josh for 3 hours though!

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Josh and Ben are both looking very heart-throbby here. Apparently Beckinsale didn’t appreciate what Bay had to say about her though.

      I think Michael Bay is one of those pop entertainers who does care about what critics say. But he probably sleeps well on a big pile of money anyway.


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