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The Romance of War

Michael Bay's World War II epic aims for the heart, and for the Oscar


The bottom line on the hunka hunka steamin' summer blockbuster known as Pearl Harbor is that, history apart, it's not nearly the atrocity I expected it to be. Running just 10 minutes shy of three hours (set your watches--the battle doesn't arrive till 90 minutes in), this admitted attempt to marry the patriotic onslaught of Saving Private Ryan with the romantic spectacle of Titanic punches the buttons it needs to punch to end up a mostly satisfying mega-budget epic with a much greater sense of finesse and restraint than its makers' previous battle records might have suggested. So, you may wonder, how bad did I expect it to be?

Well, a few years back I began referring to its director, Michael Bay, as "the Antichrist"--cinematically speaking, of course. Bay came out of directing TV commercials and music videos. Admittedly, that background is a key factor in the drastic degradation of film language that we see in many current movies, but Bay seemed a special case, a superhuman offender, from the start.

In Bad Boys, and especially, The Rock, he announced a dramatic approach that was all snotty snarl and testosterone toxicity, and a style that seemed like a deliberate attempt to jackhammer cinematic grammar into oblivion. Typically, even in scenes involving one character and some minor action, he would shoot with two or more cameras, none of which were carefully composed but, in fact, slid all over the place as in "shaky-cam" TV commercials. Then, Bay would cut between the shots furiously, relentlessly, needlessly. I counted during some scenes in The Rock and there was almost never a shot that lasted longer than five seconds. This aggressive atomization of the visual field and the viewer's attention span simultaneously, I thought then, and still think, represents the final breach of the wall separating deliberate cinematic form and the predatory assaults of advertising.

Somewhat surprisingly, Pearl Harbor gives us a new, cleaned-up and stylistically very proper, even demure Michael Bay. While even Steven Spielberg made use of jumpy cameras and rapid-fire editing in the opening of Private Ryan, Bay crafts his war story in the lyrical, sweepingly panoramic style that we generally associate with the term "Spielbergian." There's a reason he's reined in his macho mojo, of course. He's not only trying to best Spielberg in the dignified epic division; he's also out to beat James Cameron at the swooning love story game. In other words, he wants to serve up a war movie that the ladies will embrace.

Still, even this sort of overt calculation might have allowed for a spate of the anachronism and tepid lasciviousness that pass muster in many historical movies these days. But in both Bay's streamlined handling and its script by Randall Wallace (Braveheart), Pearl Harbor seems determined to take the high road, spurning immediate kicks in favor of mythic foundations and romantic suggestion.

The movie is at its most persuasive and delicately wrought in its first 45 minutes. A prologue, set in rural Tennessee in the 1920s, establishes that the tale's central males have been best friends since childhood. As archetype (or cliché) would have it, there's a barn, a verdant field and two cute, rambunctious boys who can't resist playing at the controls of the old crop-duster that the father of one of the boys flies. This is a serviceable scene that, when the plane almost takes off, sparks with real ingenuity by giving the film a heart-thumping start that doesn't depend on violence or standard shocks.

When the tale jumps forward to early 1941, the boys have grown up to be real flyboys. Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) is the nervy, square-jawed, daredevil one, Danny Miller (Josh Harnett) is his shy, doe-eyed sidekick. Both are Army pilots training under the soon-to-be-legendary Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin, in a hammily overblown performance), but Rafe is raring for action, so without telling his pal, he signs up to go fight alongside the British in the foreign-manned Eagle Squadron.

Before shipping out to the Battle of Britain, though, Rafe takes time to fall in love. The girl is a nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), and the way that the movie handles their quick conjunction is almost the best thing about it. They first meet in the hospital where, after getting one too many injections, Rafe faints in front of her and bangs his nose to a pulp in the process. She agrees to go out with him nonetheless, but in popping the cork on the champagne he's brought her, he scores a direct hit on his tender schnoz, bloodying it and making her collapse in tears of laughter at the same time.

It may sound like pretty ordinary romantic comedy stuff, and in essense, no doubt it is. But it's also accomplished with considerable charm and impressive skill in every department: The writing is fluent and unshowy, the actors are perfect in their timing and nuances, the direction is tactful and sensitive. A love scene mounted by Michael Bay that focuses on emotions rather than on careening cameras and death-by-a-thousand-cuts editing--who woulda thunk it?

Wallace's story, needless to say, takes various understandable liberties in compositing several men and military careers into the fictional characters of Rafe and Danny. And you can't call anything about the narrative strikingly original in how it's conceived or executed. In that sense, Pearl Harbor hews far closer to the pulpy, predictable melodrama of Titanic than to the relatively idiosyncratic edginess of Private Ryan. Once the story's set in motion, you can see its main developments looming up from miles off. Naturally, Rafe and Evelyn pledge their undying love, then he flies off to England and is soon lost in combat, presumed dead. Naturally, too, bereaved Evelyn and Danny end up at Pearl Harbor and in each other's arms for consolation. And just as inexorably, Rafe returns from the dead and has about two minutes to act sore and betrayed before all hell breaks loose.

I suppose it's a compliment to the rest of the movie to say that the 45-minute battle sequence doesn't upstage what surrounds it. Nor does it erase memories of the more visceral and startling opening of Private Ryan. Of course the Japanese attack on the sitting-duck U.S. naval forces, on that quiet Sunday morning of Dec. 7, 1941, is colossal, spectacular and staged with an awesome amount of firepower, both real and computer-created. With their budget of $125 million supposedly the largest ever assigned by a major studio (Titanic's surpassed it due to massive overages), Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer can at least claim to have put all of their stupendous resources on the screen. In terms of movie battle scenes, Pearl Harbor's are aimed squarely at the record books.

Yet if that doesn't sound like the most ringing of endorsements, I must admit to being a bit underwhelmed. Now that computer effects can apparently visualize anything, I find myself reacting to them in an almost subliminal way that cushions and dilutes their impact. As dozens of airplanes, scores of soldiers and a hefty handful of ships are being destroyed in a single shot, my mind is going, "Nope, this can't be real, the people are obviously CGI cannon fodder, the smoke and the lighting look too clear and artificial ... " and so on. In a way, this is the opposite of suspension of disbelief. Am I the only viewer to register such resistance to digital fakery, or simply in the minority that notices and broods about it?

As it happens, the slight aura of gassy unreality noted here typifies the movie's ultimate impact, which is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, and decidedly lacks the dramatic weight you might expect. My favorite World War II movie, John Ford's They Were Expendable, ends on a note of solemnity and grim early-war setback, but Pearl Harbor won't risk that kind of gravity--or grandeur. Determined to provide a quick rescue from the bummer of defeat, it imagines not only that Rafe and Danny took to the air and fought the Jap zeroes, but also that they went on, the next year, to fly in Doolittle's Raid, which rained U.S. bombs on Tokyo.

This revenge scene means to be rousing but feels perfunctory and rushed; it's where the film's fatigue with its own obvious conceits really begins to show. As for the success of the triangular love story at the story's core, I'll leave it to the hearts-afflutter fans of Titanic to judge that. For my tastes, Affleck and Beckinsale are both extremely good in their parts and quickly achieve a very welcome chemistry, while Harnett (who, unlike Affleck, attempts and pulls off a credible Southern accent) has the sort of dreamy looks that will grant him instant heartthrob status. But it's hard to imagine that this is enough to outstrip James Cameron's water-borne romance, since Pearl Harbor's emotional focus, especially in the war-torn second half, often seems blurry and imprecise.

In any event, this is not a three-character movie. Bay shoves in scads of secondary characters, including various historical figures that give the story its pop-epic expanse. In Washington, President Roosevelt (played by an unrecognizable but very skilled Jon Voight) reacts to the events and rouses the country in scenes that sometimes are quite moving however pat and conventional their contents may be. Overseas, meanwhile, Bay shows us Japan's leaders and fighting men, all of whom come across as stock figures that are meant to be realistic yet inoffensive. At the moment, of course, only Nazis are allowed to be real villains. Everywhere else ethnic sensitivity reigns. No one wants to upset the extravagantly denial-prone Japanese by reminding them of the Rape of Nanking or the massive atrocities they committed across China and the Pacific before and during the war, and Pearl Harbor eagerly follows suit.

It is transparently interested in one thing above all, winning the Best Picture Oscar (it will be the film to beat, as Gladiator was this time last year), a goal that nowadays presupposes a high degree of innocuousness. Coming out of the theater, my friend Rob said he liked the movie, but noticed that "not a thing about it surprises you." I would agree, except for saying that Michael Bay's new mien actually did surprise me. Watching him shift from precocious perversity to corn-fed piety in a single film really is a strange sight. It's like seeing the Antichrist teaching Sunday School. EndBlock

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