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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Pearl Harbor (2001)



Reviews and Comments

Pearl Harbor consists of three incongruous acts, mashed together into an ungainly whole. It appears to be more interested in reproducing the success of Titanic, which also set a fictional love story amidst a tragic historical event, than it is in telling the story of the men and women who fought and died in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Titanic worked because the central characters were interesting, the story was cohesive, the historical events were handled respectfully and with the proper dramatic tone, and underneath it all was an intelligent reflection on the human failings that permitted such a tragedy in the first place.

Pearl Harbor reduces the historical backdrop into a series of action set pieces. Instead of exploring ideas inherent in the events, it extracts them, reducing the reason for Japan's attack to something inexplicable at best, and having utterly nothing to say about why the attack happened, how it was carried out, or how we responded. The film is dedicated to the men who died at Pearl Harbor, but what does it dedicate to them? It does not seem very interested in them except as a tool for dramatic imagery. Consider, for example, a scene in which we learn that men are trapped in a sunken ship in the harbor. We learn this to emphasize the brutality of the attack, as if such emphasis were needed. Then the film forgets this point entirely, providing the fates of those men in a narrated line just before the closing credits. Why wasn't the third act of the film about those men, instead of a rushed covering of the Doolittle raid on Tokyo, complete with overblown crash landings and an improbable engagement with Japanese soldiers?

If you want to see a real movie about Pearl Harbor or the Doolittle Raid, one that paints a deep and accurate picture of what it was like, one you can learn from, one that pays tribute to our veterans, or even just one that functions as convincing entertainment, there is no shortage of options. Tora! Tora! Tora! chronicles the events before, during, and after the attack from both the American and Japanese sides. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is as thorough a chronicle of the Doolittle Raid as is probably possible in a feature film, while also following the personal stories of a few individuals involved (any one of which is more interesting than the personal story in Pearl Harbor). The Purple Heart, one of the most heartbreaking movies I've ever seen, tells the story of Americans captured by the Japanese after the raid.

Writing off the historical aspects of the film, I am left with the love triangle that makes up the entire first act and pervades the rest of it. It is wholly uninteresting. This same story has been told better, countless times before. Not one of the three characters is fleshed out into an individual: they are bland stereotypes, dolled up to look pretty and given trite lines that they recite to convey the illusion of genuine emotion. It's telling that it doesn't much matter to us how the love triangle is resolved. Unless they both die, she'll get one of them, and who cares which? Neither of the men are personable, and we surely suspect early on that her decision will be based more on fate than her own volition anyway. (In plots like this, it's survival of the survivors.) And so, alas, we are denied even the most basic of all elements of storytelling, namely, characters making actual decisions.