Hopelessly melodramatic and contrived, Pearl Harbor sinks on its ambition to be a war flick for chicks. The plot is as thin as one of those withered romance novels you find on the shelf of Goodwill for 99 cents, the acting even more hackneyed and lifeless than a wax museum. It’s so over the top its remarkable we don’t pass out from the lack of oxygen being elevated that high up above reality.
But we already knew this Pearl Harbor movie was bad. It’s been over 15 years now since it came out, and the critical disdain hasn’t turned to praise over time. This movie just so happened to come out a few months before 9/11, so there was a brief moment where Pearl Harbor was still the largest attack by a foreign power on the U.S. in history. That makes the movie interesting to view from a box office history perspective, and also makes one wonder if there should be a defined grace period where Hollywood can’t make a dramatic movie off of a tragedy. For Pearl Harbor, the gap was about 60 years. For 9/11, it was five, with World Trade Center and United 93 in 2006.
So, with that 60 year gap, writer Randall Wallace and director Michael Bay had plenty of time to concoct an interesting backstory for their Pearl Harbor flick. What Wallace came up with and what Bay brought to life was a story about two hillbilly pilots with atrocious accents, played by Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, as they fall in love with the same military nurse at different points in time, and then help fight the Japanese when the attack happens.
Ok, sure, Pearl Harbor was a single incident and moment, and you can’t necessarily stretch that incident out into two or three hours without having to take a few dramatic liberties to keep people from getting bored, I get it. But this wasn’t the right way to go about it. We literally have one of the most star-studded casts here in existence (Affleck, Hartnett, Jennifer Garner, Kate Beckinsale, Dan Aykroyd, Tom Sizemore, Michael Shannon, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jon Voight, Alec Baldwin, and Spud from “Trainspotting.”) There is significantly more interesting storytelling potential if we focus on the guys in Hartnett’s crew or the nurses, make it about multiple people instead of the darn tootin,’ good ole boy pilots. So much importance and emotion is stressed on their encounters with Beckinsale that its a wonder we haven’t gotten diabetes by the end of the movie after consuming so much sappiness.
But if there’s one saving grace of Pearl Harbor, its the actual attack on Pearl Harbor! I can’t attest to how historically accurate it is, but Bay has a keen understanding of how to make explosions matter, to show the utter destruction of a building or ship or airplane from inside and out. He isn’t necessarily that great at capturing fast movement as seen in his aerial battles, but when its one plane dropping a bomb on a boat, it’s pure, cinematic bliss.
The thing that’s most insulting about this movie, though, is the notion that it is a war flick for chicks. Sure, a chick flick is a thing, and there are certain movies that audiences composed of women will appreciate more than those composed of men. However, at the end of the day, a good movie is a good movie. Women can enjoy any classic wartime movie as much as men can, and men can enjoy any rom-com or love story as much as women. There is no gender or sex barrier when it comes to enjoying war or romance. Really, the only requirement is that it has to be good.