Monday, 19 March 2012

Pearl Harbor (2001)

Dir.Michael Bay
Starring: Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding Jr.

“I miss you more than Michael Bay missed the mark 
 When he made Pearl Harbor; 
 I miss you more than that movie missed the point, 
 And that’s an awful lot girl…”

Mention the 2001 film Pearl Harbor to people and the first thing they will think of is the ribbing it receives in Team America: World Police. That film’s final judgement? Pearl Harbor sucked, and I miss you…”

I mean, my God. This is a film that focuses on one of the most pivotal days in American history. It has a stellar cast. It had a budget of $140m ($5m over the original budget which, at that time, was the largest film budget ever authorised). What went wrong to make this film a by-word for Hollywood stinkers?

The story should be exciting. It is the tale of the surprise Japanese aerial attack on the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet as it lay at anchor in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. This is woven around a love triangle involving Army Air Force pilots Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck), Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) and nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale). Rafe and Evelyn start dating, but he leaves for England to fight against the Luftwaffe in the Eagle Squadron of American volunteer pilots. He is shot down during a dogfight over the English Channel is presumed lost at sea. This comes as a terrible blow both to Evelyn and to his shy best friend Danny, both of whom have been posted to the idyllic Hawaiian islands. As they grieve they become closer, eventually starting their own relationship. Then, suddenly, after three months in occupied France, Rafe returns, and is horrified to find his girl and his best friend together. Rafe and Danny’s animosity is forgotten the very next day, however, when the Japanese Zeros swoop overhead to wreak havoc on the amassed American battleships; they lead their comrades in a fight back against the Japanese.

The staging and special effects are epic and quite spectacular. Planes sweep through, spitting bullets. Ships explode and cant alarmingly. Hundreds of extras are flung from the decks or are trapped down below as the mighty behemoths sink beneath the waves. It looks awe-inspiring. The problem is, I didn’t feel enough emotional investment in the characters to care. I was obviously meant to, but the supporting cast were not given enough screen-time for them to make an impression. A large boxer who is trapped in the engine room as it fills with water; a captain who had previously said something nice to Petty Officer Miller; a pilot who wears a vest: we see all these people die but it doesn’t really mean anything. Should I be caring more about these characters than for all the other victims because they had previously had a line of dialogue? Essentially there were only three characters that were given enough time (and this in a 2 hr 45 min movie!) for an audience member to care about, and these were Rafe, Danny and Evelyn.

Except that the love triangle storyline was, I felt, contrived and heavy handed. This may be because of the actors picked. I must confess that whenever I see a film starring Ben Affleck I find myself wondering whether they were unable to cast anyone else. Whenever I see a film starring Josh Hartnett I wonder whether they were unable to cast Ben Affleck. Sure, Affleck does a great job to looking noble and heroic and Hartnett is credible at looking tortured but I would have hoped that they could do a little more than this. The scripting does not call for them to do that though. Dialogue is stolid and unmemorable. I’m not entirely sure why Evelyn decides to get over Rafe with his best friend other than that he is nice enough and he takes her up in his plane, something that proves to be a very effective knicker loosener. No sooner has he done this then they are having dead-eyed slow-motion sex in a hangar full of parachutes which waft dramatically like the curtains in a Bonnie Tyler music video. Just compare this to Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr's infamous and adulterous 'roll in the surf' in 1953's From Here to Eternity. Burt and Deb manage to conjure up all the passion and intensity that, sadly, Josh and Kate cannot. Rafe’s return should have been heart-wrenching and heavy with drama. Instead it is just something that happens. Thankfully Evelyn is spared having to choose between the man she loves and the man who has fathered her baby by one of the two pilots being written out. I guess Pearl Harbor’s target audience just aren’t prepared for a character having to make a moral choice.

Pearl Harbor love scenes:
Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale in Pearl Harbor;
Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity

In fact, one of the things that struck me was quite how absent of moral decision the entire film was. Rafe goes to fight in England. One would expect a stirring speech about why he is standing against the forces of tyranny and oppression. But no. He has one line about wanting to “matter” but that is it. There is a spot of historical re-writing around this as well. Certainly I was left with the impression that Rafe was fighting in the Battle of Britain – except that by the summer of 1941 that particular battle had been over for almost a year. Furthermore no American air force pilot would have been allowed to transfer across to fight in the air force of a foreign country against a nation with which the USA was at peace. I do not know enough about the Pearl Harbor attack or the war in the Pacific, however, to say quite how historically accurate the film is on those aspects of the movie. One thing I did notice, however, was the difference in the way the Japanese attack and the Doolittle Raid were shown. The Japanese attack showed women running screaming down streets as the Zeros strafed them from behind, ambulances exploding, and bullets tearing into the water around the swimming seamen. In comparison there seem to be no casualties caused by the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. I counted maybe one person in a scene, but no one was shown getting killed (in reality fifty people were killed by the raid and around four hundred wounded).

There are two good lines of dialogue in the entire movie. Kate Beckinsale has a voiceover describing how “Before the Doolittle Raid America knew nothing but defeat. After it, there was hope of victory” – a complete crib of Winston Churchill’s famous line that “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat”. Ben Affleck then gets the only moment of wit in the entire film when he replies to Colonel Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) that he does indeed know what ‘Top Secret’ means: “It’s the kind of mission where you get medals, but they send ‘em to your relatives”. This is perhaps the only moment of humour that works. The early sections have some quite misjudjed comedy. Affleck’s first meeting with Evelyn clearly shows that slapstick is not his forte and his comrade Red has a comedy stutter (but of course he does – he’s played by Ewen Bremner, best known as Spud from Trainspotting). But this is not a film that desires a good script. It is a Michael Bay film. Every Michael Bay film that I have seen has clearly spent the bare minimum on script and plot so that more can be maximised on the one truly important thing: explosions. Michael Bay has yet to meet a gaping plot hole that he is unable to fill by having some stuff explode. At least Pearl Harbor does have a comprehensible storyline – even if heavy-handed newsreels are needed to explain some of the more arcane points, like what the war is, whether the United States are involved, and so forth. In this respect it is better than, say, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, which I paid good money to watch at the cinema and came out wondering what on earth had just happened. In Team America they wonder “Why does Michael Bay get to keep on making movies?” The answer is simple. He is very successful. I had remembered in my head that Pearl Harbor was an awful flop. It wasn’t. Sure, it spunked a whole heap of the Walt Disney Corporation’s money up the wall and it was nominated for six Golden Raspberry Awards (thankfully Pearl Harbor was released in the same year as Freddie Got Fingered), but it made a shed-load of dosh - $450m in total. For every dollar spent, it made three back. Maybe not the return hoped for, but it was still an impressive haul. In box office terms Pearl Harbor was a success.

As for my view? Well, it's entertaining enough, and it is hardly the worst film in the world ever. At least I can say I have seen it now. My first choice of film for this state had been From Here to Eternity but I have seen that before. From Here is, in all respects a better story. It has everything that Pearl Harbor lacks - convincing love stories, moral choices, deaths in action that the audience actually cares about. Frank Sinatra didn't deserve his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his one-note drunken serviceman character, but Montgomery Clift would have been good money for a Best Actor win in my eyes, and the film did scoop Best Film and Best Director. Not seen it? Trust me - check it out...

What have I learnt about Hawaii?
In 1941 Hawaii was not America’s fiftieth state; it was just a part of the nation’s overseas empire. Bearing this in mind it is surprising that there are no actual Hawaiians seen. There is a bar-owner who looks as though he may be Hawaiian, but other than that everyone else is Caucasian or African-American. There actually seem to be more Japanese in Hawaii than Hawaiians. (The film does point out that there were people of Japanese descent both living in Hawaii and serving in the American forces).

The strategic importance of the islands becomes clear. From Hawaii America could dominate the central Pacific. For Japan to continue southwards along the east Asian coastline would be to expose their flank to any possible American attack; strategically it would hence make sense to eliminate that threat before it could arise, even at the risk of awakening “a sleeping giant”. But for the men and women stationed there before the war Hawaii seemed a dream posting – we see them drinking in bars, surfing and lazing on the beach. The hospital is empty (except for one man with sunburn).

Can we go there?
The filming of Pearl Harbour jumps all over the place. The English scenes were indeed shot in – and over – England. The airfield is Badminton House. The Doolittle Raid does not take place over Japan though – the factories are actually in Gary, Indiana, and the geisha temple seen in passing is the Byodo-in Temple outside Honolulu. Real ships were used for authenticity, and so filming was dictated by where they were moored. The Queen Mary is in Long Beach, California, rather than New York harbour (and the nightclub scene in New York was actually filmed aboard here). Battleships used include the SS Lane Victory (Los Angeles), USS Lexington (Corpus Christi) and USS Texas (Houston). The Texas stood in, an different times, for the USS Tennessee, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Hornet.

Many of the air raid scenes were shot in and around the Hawaiian island of Oahu, even if most of the planes were CGI’d in. Active duty service personnel were allowed to be used as extras, making this one of the United States’ greatest military disasters twice over! Wheeler Air Force Base, Fort Shafter, Ford Island and Pearl Harbor itself were used as locations. The USS Missouri and frigate Whipple were used for shooting at Pearl Harbor too. Furthermore $8m was spent on a vast water stage in Honolulu to enable the filming of scenes that were meant to be out in the Pacific. But the set used for Titanic at Fox’s Rosarito Beach studios in Baja California, was used for those scenes where the battleships exploded, listed and turned turtle.

Other scenes that were supposed to be in Hawaii were in California. San Pedro’s 6th Street was dressed to be Oahu Street. The Warner Grand Theatre is where Evelyn and Danny decide to skip watching The Great Dictator and the ‘Black Cat Café’ was constructed two doors down in an empty building. The Japanese plan their attack a couple of miles away in Angels Gate Park. Evelyn’s hospital scenes were shot at Linda Vista Hospital, 610 S St Louis, in east L.A.

More fitting than searching out the locations of where the film was shot, however, is searching out the locations of where so many men lost their lives. The USS Arizona Memorial today stands proud in the midst of Pearl Harbor and commemorates the dead.

Overall Rating: 2/5

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