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Action film yes, 'serious' film no

Review: 'Pearl Harbor' hits some, misses much


By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- December 7, 1941, is a day that has lived in infamy -- just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt said it would in his message to Congress the day after the Japanese surprise attack by on the American fleet docked at Hawaii's Pearl Harbor.

Now, 60 years later, Disney Studios is hoping that May 25 -- the opening day of the new film "Pearl Harbor" -- will be a day that lives in box office legend.

But despite all the advance press and the lavish premiere held in Hawaii, this movie will not alter the course of world history.

That isn't because director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer didn't try to make this flick into a massive historical epic by injecting it with enough testosterone to float a battleship -- or two. Bruckheimer and Bay are the poster twins for Hollywood's obsession with "boys and their toys."

Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale star in 'Pearl Harbor'

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CNN's Paul Clinton says 'Pearl Harbor' is postcard-perfect visually, and about as deep (May 25)

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If it goes boom, they believe, it should be done twice. It's a formula that has worked to the tune of $887 million, the money their movies "The Rock" (1996) and "Armageddon" (1998) have hauled in for Disney nameplates.

They're hoping lightning strikes a third time with the $140 million "Pearl Harbor." Moreover, since Bay is generally known in Hollywood as an action director, "Pearl Harbor" appears to be his bid for respectability: It's got an epic scope, a tragic true story, and a romantic triangle.

Does it succeed? Yes and no.

Overdirected contrivances

Bay's attention to detail is legendary. Nobody can make bombs bursting in air as visually spectacular. But that tendency to overdirect is a liability when it comes to the emotional elements in the film.

Ben Affleck plays Rafe McCawley, a 25-year-old Army pilot itching to get into combat as World War II looms on the horizon. Newcomer Josh Hartnett portrays Danny Walker, Rafe's fellow pilot and inseparable childhood friend who grew up with him on an adjacent farm in Tennessee. British actress Kate Beckinsale plays Evelyn Johnson, a beautiful nurse with whom Rafe falls in love during his induction into the military. In Randall Wallace's ("Braveheart," 1995) script, the three are thrown together in various combinations as they are swept up into the winds of war.

After Rafe is presumed killed in battle after volunteering in Great Britain, he suddenly shows up in Hawaii to join Evelyn and Danny on the eve of the Japanese attack. Their reunion is a rocky one, but suddenly nothing else matters as they all fight for their lives on that fateful morning in paradise.

Unfortunately the romantic elements in Wallace's screenplay seem contrived and way too pat. Add Bay's overdirection as he makes Hallmark-card images of the young lovers against backgrounds of lush vegetation and fiery explosions, and the end results are oddly remote, lacking any real emotion.

The innocence, the horror

The same sense of remoteness permeates the battle scenes. They're huge! They're exciting! They fill the screen! But with a few exceptions - for example, a scene where the hands of trapped, drowning sailors attempt to grasp Affleck's hands through an open grate -- these tableaus of human carnage never strike the heart. In Bay's sweeping shots the victims of the attack look like a bunch of white confetti being tossed into the air. There is little emotional investment here either.

That being said, the movie is beautifully photographed and executed. The film does capture the innocence of the times and the horror of the surprise attack.

The actors do a good job, including Jon Voight, who is nearly unrecognizable in his pivotal role as Roosevelt. Also turning in fine performances are Alec Baldwin as Col. James Doolittle and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Doris "Dorie" Miller, a Navy cook who earned a medal manning an anti-aircraft gun during the battle.

As an "event" film, "Pearl Harbor" will probably do just fine at the box office, especially the first big holiday weekend. But it lacks the heart of "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) and the involving romance showcased in "Titanic" (1997). At three hours, it's also too long. The entire battle at Pearl Harbor only lasted two.

"Pearl Harbor" is hit and miss.

"Pearl Harbor" opens nationwide on Friday. Rated PG-13.

• 'Pearl Harbor' - official site

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