DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Pearl Harbor, From Here to Eternity


Title: Pearl Harbor

Release Date:  2001

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 180 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  PG-13

Distributor and Production Company: Disney/Buena Vista/Touchtone Pictures; Jerry Bruckheimer Films 

Director; Writer: Michael Bay

Producer: Jerry Burckheimer

Cast:   Josh Hartnett, Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Colm Feore, Jon Voight and Alec Baldwin

Technical: Panavsion 70; digital

Relevance to doaskdotell site: war, attacks on US, draft

Review: Movie Review Pearl Harbor (2001), from Touchstone Pictures, Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay, directed by Michael Bay, starring Josh Hartnett, Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Colm Feore, Jon Voight and Alec Baldwin, 180 Minutes, PG-13  Also Swordfish (2001).



This is an awesome film, much more engaging than Tora, Tora, Tora! (1970), and reminiscent of From Here to Eternity (1953).  Well, for $140 million it had better be a blow out.  And not all viewers will agree.


Perhaps the biggest irony of this biggest-budget epic ever can be drawn from the performance of 22-year-old St. Paul, Minnesota raised Josh Hartnett, who heretofore had appeared in silly films, like Halloween H20 in 1998.  At the time, the local papers here in in the Twin Cities made a big deal of that (a local personality making it), but this weekend the media here really jumped.  The Star Tribune gave a brief biography, and the short of it is that Hartnett has hit his home run by half dropping out, going his own way, paying his dues a bit, but by following his own self-direction and instincts and forgetting the conventional expectations of the “corporate state.”  Perhaps this is indeed the “American way,” but the past few years have seen numerous examples by larger younger people:  Matt Damon, Shawn Fanning, Sebastian Junger, numerous entrepreneurs and performers.  And some of these come back, demanded and needed by corporate America, as it discovers that the only answer to economic lethargy is new ideas, new personalities, risk taking, and innovation.   


Hartnett plays Danny Walker, a boyish Army pilot (there was not separate Air Force in 1941) serving in Pearl Harbor in the months before the Day of Infamy, December 7, 1941. He has grown up with his boyhood friend, Rake McGawley in rural Tennessee, well inculcated with manly warrior ethics (and the early warnings about “the Germans”) by a somewhat abusive father.  Rake (Ben Affleck) is outwardly the more flamboyant of the two, and more obviously the ladies’ man, charming a nurse into passing his eye physical and then giving him two shots in the boom-boom.  Rake, to prove his own self worth, volunteers to go over to England to help fight off the Germans (in the wake of the battle of Britain), gets shot down and is rescued, unbeknownst to his buddies back in Hawaii.  Walker (Hartnett), really the more sensitive and deeper character of the two, gradually falls in love with the same nurse (Beckinsale).  On the eve of the bombing, Rake suddenly returns, and Danny doesn’t understand why Rake doesn’t accept his explanation that they all thought he was dead.  (Later Rake explains that his love for the nurse is what gave him the will to live and survive hypothermia in the North Sea when he was shot down.) Danny really cares about their friendship, almost or perhaps as much as his relationship with the nurse, whom he doesn’t yet know he has impregnated.  (As far as I know, that is Hartnett’s first big “love scene” and he plays it as powerfully as any of the stars of the past.) 


Then the attack happens, and the two men are drawn back together, gradually overcoming the resentment of the love triangle (and, by the way, in any triangle not all of the relationships can be of opposite “polarity”).  The pyrotechnics go off, and they are awesome, as Bay pauses to soak in the carnage, as when a torpedo lands in a ship bay before it explodes.  Much of the carnage comes from individual rounds scissoring the men running on the ground.


The two buddies go off on a top secret essentially kamikaze small bombing over Tokyo, ordered by FDR (Voight) and commanded by James Dolittle (played by a portlier Alec Baldwin)  as a way of proving the America can do the impossible.  I’ll hve to tell the ending to make my point.  Danny, fatally wounded and bleeding internally, will die in China (after they beat off a capture from Jap patrols) in Rake’s arms, almost like in the last scene of Spartacus, or like a Biblical David and Jonathan. 


The script is a bit clunky and silly in the beginning, but starts getting my attention, at least, as war draws near and as, in psychological terms, the movie gets momentum.  Numerous lines deal with the need to feel important (“I’m not anxious to die; I’m just anxious to matter”). Before Danny joins the Dolittle bombing raid, Rake tells him, “you have nothing to prove,” and yet Danny doesn’t realize he will be a father. Letter, James Dolittle, while lecturing and pepping up the raiders, says he would commit suicide before being captured but then says, “That’s just me. I’m 45 years old and you have your lives ahead of you. You do what you wish.”


And here, of course, we get closer to one of my own concerns: the relationship between history and the graduation evolution of personal liberty in psychological terms.  For the historical forces driving us to war are shown in a choppy fashion with cameos (particularly of the Japanese government) designed to review the historical events that led to war “behind the scenes.”  The scenes with FDR are better and begin to invade the territory of personal sacrifice, something that Americans already knew something about with the Great Depression.  The pre-Turing intelligence scenes are interesting, with the crude technology of the times.  At one point, a portly analyst offers his own theory of Japanese intentions based on incomplete decoding, and he is berated for expressing his “opinions” and ordered to go back to becoming an even more dedicated and non-expressive geekolator.  History tells us that the United States had intercepted telegraph communications before the attacks, but in the days where Western Union was the fastest we had (even over phone); the warnings did not get to Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese envoy did not have his fateful meeting on Dec. 7 with FDR until a half hour after the attacks had started (Norman Schwarzkopf, film series on MSNBC).


Now this brings up the point of a film about Pearl Harbor—that it (along with the courage of the two friends portrayed) would provide a pivot point of history for later generations. By winning the War and turning back some of the worst abuses of ideologies based on statism, America would then go down, for the next half-century-plus of gradually increasing individualism (up to the notorious turning point of Sept. 11, 2001, when the idea of ‘national purpose’ would again take on urgency, in comparison to individualism).  Through all of it, and perhaps because of it all—the Cold War, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate, oil shocks, inflation, Iran, the AIDS epidemic, social controversies over gays in the military and at the altar, increasing laissez-faire for business leading first to downsizings and later to new more entrepreneurial opportunities as on the Internet—we (that is, America and increasing the rest of the more democratically governed world) would become a dominion where the individual could define himself apart from the conventions of society, even to the point of  sometimes questioning those basic motives behind marrying and parenting in exchange for more personal, subtle and artistic self-expressive goals.  All of this new self-actualization would prove nettlesome, as it would threaten more vulnerable people and seem to ditch all the ties of social commitment that had built western civilization to start with and had enabled to it overcome or at least challenge imperialism, Nazism, racism, communism, depressions, and the like—and gradually approach collective social justice to boot.  It’s an irony or paradox: self-expressive individualism requires a functional civilization with cooperative structures to have any meaning at all.  And that can call for sacrifice. So FDR at one point in one radio address says that America is perceived as a self-indulgent, superficial country willing to let others do its fighting for it (read this—the draft), and proceeds with the improbable Dolittle raid. And yet the Japanese confess at one point that all they have done is awaken “a sleeping giant.”  All of this from a war story cleverly designed to exploit the old-fashioned idea that a man may justify his life only by wife and family, with a clever plot twist—only to see the whole idea recede in the decades since Final Victory (to the consternation of “family values”).


People of Hartnett’s age (and perhaps Affeck’s) generally understand very poorly the enormity of what has happened since the days of Bay’s epic.  Perhaps Hartnett and Affleck themselves understand it (as well demonstrated by Affeck’s and his buddy Damon’s own Good Will Hunting).  Perhaps Bay and Bruckheimer understand it.  But this calls the question of a newer style of historical filmmaking.  Indeed, the Harlequin-style romances of this film, as well as Titanic and Gone with the Wind, for that matter, do work surprisingly well (despite their silly premises) because the characters presented do show considerable human depth and determination to survive (never be hungry again) despite all of their self-serving flaws. Yes, we had individualism in the days of Miss Scarlet and didn’t know it!  But Tinseltown can do better, as independent film makers already know.  Why not show history from the point of view of the contributions of individual citizens over a longer span of time?  Let the survivors of these calamities sit around a dinner table in, say, Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern and tell their stories, bringing back episodes of history as the personal stories interrelate at intimate levels—and avoid all didactic historical episodes not visible to the protagonists.  You really can combine the styles of Ken Burns and Bruckheimer.  It can be done, and it should be, to really teach history.  


I want to make a few notes about the technical presentation of the film, outside of the gee-whiz special effects.  The film is shot in wide-screen VistaVision, with the result of clearer focus at different depths in the outdoor scenes.  The music score (Zimmer) is schmaltzy and sounds like a Brucknerian animated slow movement.  Touchstone did not show its trademark until the end credits.  This studio, now making the biggest films of all, ought at least to develop a musical fanfare for its trademark, to go against those of Fox and WB.  Companies do need to imprint the public with their brands, and music can help.


The St. Paul Pioneer Press, on June 2, 2001, ran a story about the contributions of the Wold-Chamberlain field (now the MSP International Airport, Northwest Airlines and all) in setting up the fuel tanks for the raid (column by Don Boxmeyer).


From Here to Eternity (1953, Columbia, dir. Fred Zinnemann, book by James Jones) is the obvious comparison. This black-and-white film is, like “Gone with the Wind,” one of those historical epics that is sometimes called the “best movie ever made.” The image is that of Sgt. Warderm (a shaved Burt Lancaster) and the captain’s wife Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr) smooching on the Hawaii beach just as Pearl Harbor is about to start. There is, of course, the love triangle, just noted (as in this film), as long as a subplot about military performance: Pvt. Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is harassed for not wanting box on his military company’s team any more and prove his fighting manhood. The newer film opens up and carries history forward, but this one may zero in more on the social morays of the era, where men had to fit in to a social hierarchy.    

Related reviews: Swordfish; films about Afghanistan Good Will Hunting


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