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In Defense (Sort of) of 'Pearl Harbor'
by Eric D. Snider

“Pearl Harbor” is a small, unobtrusive film full of sublime characters and fascinating dialogue.

I’m only kidding. “Pearl Harbor” is a big, pushy movie featuring dialogue written by Microsoft DialoguePro 4.0. It all takes about three hours to watch, though only a few minutes to forget.

As a movie critic, I am required not to like “Pearl Harbor”; in fact, I have taken a fair amount of heat from people for giving it a B+. (That’s about four stars out of five, if that’s your preferred scale, or a “thumbs-up,” if you’re one of THOSE.)

On the one hand, we have the people who feel B+ is too low, because it’s such an awesome movie and Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett are such great actors, by which we merely mean that they are cute. These complaints come from people who I picture as being the same people who saw “Titanic” a dozen times, except that “Titanic” was three years ago, and I think all of its fans would have grown up by now. There must be a new crop of 14-year-old girls who let their hormones decide what constitutes a “good” movie. (I saw these same people squealing with delight when Tom Cruise won the MTV Movie Award equivalent of Best Actor the other night. Not a one of them actually thought his performance in “Mission: Impossible 2” was superlative; they merely thought he was better-looking then his fellow nominees.)

On the other hand, we have the people who feel B+ is too high. I am more sympathetic with these people, if only because they can spell. They say the film’s cheesy love story is badly written and not performed with any great zest, and that the whole thing belittles the tragedy of Pearl Harbor.

As to the idea of dumbing down history and making a mockery of the real events, I say: poo-poo. Listen, folks, pretty much everything we remember from history was either really tragic or had a tragic side to it. No movie is going to completely do justice to the subject matter, unless it’s a strict documentary using actual footage and faithful recreations. Everything’s going to be fictionalized, romanticized, simplified and just generally fiddled with. <I>It’s how movies work.</I> The only way to solve the perceived problem would be to make historical subjects off-limits, which would mean about two-thirds fewer movies every year, which actually isn’t that bad an idea.

The real problem here is that a lot of people who were alive on Dec. 7, 1941, are still alive. The event is too fresh in our collective consciousness to allow filmmakers to screw around with it. All films based on historic events bring the nerds out of the woodworks who complain about the inaccuracies, but the rest of us usually ignore them and just enjoy the movie. The only reason “Pearl Harbor” is any different is that we’re not removed from it enough. A movie that turned the Civil War into a stupid love story riddled with inaccuracies would not anger anyone except those who lived through it, such as Strom Thurmond and the Queen Mother.

If people want to criticize the movie for more legitimate reasons -- acting, screenplay, direction, whatever -- fine. But let’s get off our high horses on the “belittling the tragedy of Pearl Harbor” thing.

When I reviewed the film, whether it came across as a fitting tribute to the memory of Pearl Harbor was of little importance to me. I never got the impression the movie was TRYING to be that. The marketing department certainly wanted to give it that spin, but that’s not the movie’s fault. Yes, the movie used a serious event for its own personal gain, but no one owns history, and I don’t remember too many people making a fuss over how much money James Cameron made off the deaths of the Titanic victims; why are we starting now? Because Pearl Harbor was a military tragedy that had to do with freedom and democracy and apple pie, while the sinking of the Titanic was just a bunch of hubristic rich people? Let’s make up our minds: Either we’re offended by misuses of history, or we’re not.

My high score for “Pearl Harbor” was the result of its overall impact. I whole-heartedly agree that the first 90 minutes are dreadfully trite, lame and cliched. The acting is passable, but the dialogue is painful. It’s a dim, C-grade romance.

But when the bombs start dropping, the movie becomes enthralling. For many, the ill will gained during those uncomfortable first 90 minutes may be hard to overcome, and the genuinely exciting action sequences may be too little, too late. I can understand that point of view. For me, however, I was able to forgive a bad first half when the second half was so engaging.

When it was all over, I liked the good half of the movie more than I disliked the bad half. (Granted, this could be because the good half was at the end and was fresher in my memory.) Taken as a whole, I was more satisfied than dissatisfied with it. I’m not eager for Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer to collaborate again -- and this includes simple projects such as having lunch together -- but they could have done a lot worse than they did on “Pearl Harbor.”

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originally posted: 06/09/01 03:15:06
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