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Wednesday, July 11, 2001

From Here To Inanity

A movie that will live in infamy


After you've sat through three hours of "Pearl Harbor" -- 90 minutes' worth of passionless romance, 45 minutes of incessant explosions and then a seemingly endless 45-minute coda -- while your butt is screaming to get off that seat and out the door, the final bomb drops. As the credits roll -- including about 15 minutes of special-effects technicians -- they hit you with yet another of those generic adult contemporary ballads. It could have been Whitney or Mariah or any of those blowhard divas, but I think it was actually Faith Hill.


Pearl Harbor

Rating: * Director: Michael Bay Running time: 183 minutes Language: EnglishOpens nationwide July 14

1923, a Tennessee farm; cue the Norman Rockwell cliches. Two tykes, Rafe and Danny, share an obsession with aircraft. One day they manage to take off in a crop-dusting plane. Danny's dad gives him a hiding, but Rafe -- protective of his buddy -- wallops Danny's dad with a plank.

1941, a U.S. Air force base: Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) are now hotshot flyboys. Rafe falls in love with saucy Navy nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), but Danny is too shy to score. Ever the alpha male, Rafe volunteers to fly with the RAF in defending Britain against the Blitz. He says goodbye and ships out, while Danny and Evelyn are transferred to Pearl Harbor.

Word comes that Rafe has been shot down and is presumed dead. After giving up hope, Danny and Evelyn eventually come together, which results in a big scene when Rafe turns up alive after all. Fortunately for this menage a trois, their romantic tiff is put in perspective when the Japanese Navy suddenly attacks Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7.

Although U.S. casualties are high, Rafe and Danny score a small victory by taking on a dozen Japanese fighters and triumphing. The boys are then chosen to fly with ace James Doolittle in a daredevil raid on Tokyo. Evelyn waits anxiously in Hawaii to see if either of her lovers will make it back . . . Never mind. What irks is this shameless pandering to the tastes of the moment, with no regard for the period feel of the film. It reeks of a gratuitous addition, included for no other reason than the marketing department deemed a bland radio hit necessary to maximize merchandising "synergy."

Please, please me

That's no surprise; every decision in "Pearl Harbor" seems to have been made by the marketing department. Though with a film by producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Top Gun," "Coyote Ugly," etc.), it's hard to tell where marketing ends and creativity begins, anyway. (Note his preference for hiring ex-TV-commercial directors like "Pearl's" Michael Bay.)

Thus we have, as the film's ads promise, "something for everyone": beefcake for the girls, with hunky Ben Affleck and sultry Josh Hartnett; a continuous orgasm of explosions for the guys; transparently token black and Asian-American characters to widen the demographic; and -- since Japan is the second-biggest movie market in the world -- a kinder, gentler Imperial Japanese Army, with pilots who warn little kids to "Run away!" . . . before, regrettably, blasting the U.S. fleet to shreds in a sneak attack and strafing the wounded survivors in the water.

Let us not forget the PC-requisite strong female character: Plucky nurse Kate Beckinsale sacrifices her nylons and lipstick to save the wounded. (I'm not joking.) Topping everything is the jingoistic need to finesse an American defeat into victory, first with flyboys Affleck and Hartnett scoring a moral victory by downing Japanese fighters at Pearl, then extending the film's brief to include Gen. Doolittle's bombing raid on Tokyo. (It will be interesting to see how the film's big "Yo!" line plays here, when Alec Baldwin, as Doolittle, proclaims: "Gentlemen: We are going to Tokyo . . . AND WE'RE GOING TO BOMB IT!")

But getting back to that damn ballad, it struck me how this mutant musical style is the perfect complement to bloated Hollywood blockbusters like "Pearl Harbor": a rampant overindulgence of technique masking trite, poorly feigned sentiment and the utter, inhuman absence of any real emotion. All rammed down our throats by the force of literally millions of dollars in advertising.

Won't get fooled again?

Ah, yes, the advertising. You'll see all the hype about how "Pearl Harbor" is the "No. 1 Summer Season Hit in America." Well, it was for one week, which is no big feat: Experience has shown that every dollar spent on advertising will get you a dollar back on opening weekend. Spend enough and you'll open big. Where a wannabe blockbuster really starts making money, though, is after the initial coup.

So, judging by the American standards of success -- box-office "scores" -- "Pearl Harbor" was a loser, a Hideki Irabu, a fat toad of a flick that talked big

("Titanic" meets "Gone With the Wind," as the promotional hype put it) before getting booted to the minors. It opened at the top of the U.S. box office, but was kicked down to No. 3 in its second week of release, fading to No. 5 by week three, where it still hadn't made back its $150 million-plus budget. Going, going, gone.

It's easy to see the "high concept" brainstorm that led to expectations of mega-success for "Pearl," a series of seemingly surefire lifts from other hits: "Titanic" with explosions and more ships sinking; "Top Gun" with a higher body count; "Saving Private Ryan" with all the stolid patriotism and none of the doubt or fear. But -- as evidenced by the unenthusiastic reaction to this film -- mixing the glib cliche and phony heroic flash of "Top Gun" with the heavy subject matter of one of America's greatest military disasters may not have been the smartest idea.

Cuba Gooding , Jr. (top) and the USS Oklahoma star in "Pearl Harbor."(C) TOUCHSTONE PICTURES AND JERRY BRUCKHEIMER, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

World War II: The game

World War II has been "hot" in Hollywood ever since "Saving Private Ryan" hit it big, spawning an ongoing run of big-budget war flicks -- "U-571," "Enemy at the Gates" and more to come -- but "Pearl Harbor" couldn't be farther removed from what made "Ryan" such a memorable cinematic experience.

Stephen Spielberg, to his credit, tried to capture in "Ryan" the chaotic experience of war as felt by those caught up in it -- an intensely human experience. In "Pearl Harbor," director Michael Bay gives us the experience of war as felt by those who play video games -- a purely technological thrill, comfortably removed from reality.

While Spielberg sought to have us identify with the men thrown into the maelstrom of D-Day -- to share their feelings of terror, rage, blind courage and powerlessness at the hands of fate -- Bay seeks only to have us enjoy the spectacle of war, to watch hundreds of sailors on the USS Arizona blown up in fireballs with the same "Ooh, aah!" reaction we'd have to a firework display.

"Pearl Harbor" needs plenty of flash, because it certainly has nothing to say. The historical reasons for Japan's attack are consigned to a one-liner (see accompanying box), just another element -- along with romance, character development and motivation -- that Bay tosses up there absentmindedly as he plods toward his pyrotechnic money shots.

For Bay, historical accuracy means making sure that a bomb dropped from an aircraft moves with the same speed and trajectory as the real thing. He said as much in his comments to the press, saying that it was two decades of advances in SFX technology since "Tora! Tora! Tora!" that made him feel "Pearl Harbor" was worth making.

Such technical proficiency can be a useful adjunct to a story, helping the audience to suspend its disbelief; in Bay's case, though, it's a substitute for a story. Of all working directors, Bay knows no equal in his utter lack of interest in people and his total obsession with SFX. Bruckheimer and Bay wanted this to be a romance for the ages, but all they can milk out of it is Meaningful Looks on a Panoramic Vista, with Beckinsale trying to keep from wincing as she coos, "I don't think I'll ever look at another sunset without thinking of you." Gag.

Perhaps I've made a mistake by taking seriously what is essentially a Harlequin romance-cum-disaster movie. And yet, for a seminal moment in modern history, one that continues to inform the present, the events that unfolded at Pearl Harbor certainly deserve more respect than this. The film's wishy-washy epitaph, delivered by Beckinsale, is inadvertently accurate: "When the action is over and we look back, we know more, and less."

With "Pearl Harbor," Bay wants to convince us that less is more.



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