Brawny but brainless, Pearl Harbor is another bloated, irresponsible example of history according to Disney-a lame juggernaut that falsifies the facts, assaults the senses and leaves you blind, deaf and soulless. It’s a blisteringly expensive, $140 million, three-hour tapestry of flag-waving, patriotic martyrdom that steals shamelessly from every war movie ever made about that fateful morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan launched an air and naval attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor that resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 soldiers and civilians as well as the destruction of the U.S. Pacific fleet, and marked America’s entry into World War II. The real story of Pearl Harbor is a history lesson that deserves a more educated and responsible team of creators than producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun), hack screenwriter Randall Wallace (Braveheart) and director Michael Bay, the schlock jock behind such trashy action flicks as Armageddon and The Rock. Only in Hollywood could so many untalented, insensitive people be encouraged to waste so much money desecrating a vital chapter of the American heritage in the name of show-business greed.
In a contrived and blatantly obvious attempt to combine the epic battles of Saving Private Ryan with the sweeping romanticism of Titanic (and maybe win some Oscars for excess, if not originality), Pearl Harbor comes in three sections. Intercutting newsreel footage of Hitler’s armies with idyllic shots of an innocent America jitterbugging to big-band swing music to give us a sense of time and place, the first section traces the lives of two gung-ho childhood buddies from Tennessee, Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett), who follow their aviation dreams of loops and barrel rolls to the U.S. Army Air Corps in the summer of 1940. Rafe falls in love with a nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) the minute she jabs a needle into his “cute butt,” but leaves her moon-faced and starry-eyed when he volunteers for active duty with the Royal Air Force to fight in the Battle of Britain. As this numbing soap opera drones on, Rafe-who cannot read the letters on a simple optometrist’s chart-still manages to compose literate love letters outside a British pub, while Evelyn writes hers from the “safe zone” of a Hawaiian beach wearing bougainvillea in her hair.
After Rafe is shot down in the Atlantic, Evelyn and Danny exchange bodily fluids in their grief, presuming he’s dead. (As if a three-hour movie would kill off Ben Affleck in the first half hour!) Imagine their shock when Rafe arrives through a romantic gauze of curtains blowing gently in the breeze and finds out they’ve been staining his sheets behind his back, every kiss and remorseful tear accompanied by strings and heavenly choirs of hosannas on high. While the boys-who appear to love each other more than the blank and anorexic Evelyn-slug it out in a barroom set duplicating the one in the vastly superior Pearl Harbor saga From Here to Eternity, we cut to a Japanese villain right out of a Charlie Chan movie who says stoically, “The rise and fall of our empire is at stake.” If you’re wondering, after 80 minutes of turgid melodrama that is never remotely believable, what any of this has to do with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, you are finally ready for section two.
The action stuff Michael Bay is famous for is almost as hokey as the unconvincing love triangle under the banana trees. Before the mushy violins fade long enough for Evelyn to spring the news that she’s pregnant, the Japanese fighter pilots approach at dawn to the sound of drums, like a Comanche war party heading for the wagon train. Like a sleeping tiger, Mr. Bay arises from his slumber with tableaus of battle carnage that pull out all the stops: hundreds of men sliding off the sides of flaming ships, patients burned alive in hospital beds, doctors giving blood transfusions with Coca-Cola bottles, nurses marking the foreheads of patients who have already been given morphine with their lipstick.
Except for one or two isolated moments (hands of dying sailors, trapped below the hull of a ship, reach out from a grate to hold Mr. Affleck’s hands before going limp; Ms. Beckinsale ripping off her nylons to use as a tourniquet), these dizzying images never grab the heart. Bodies thrown through the air like Tinker Toys don’t approximate the emotional involvement or evoke the tragic loss in Saving Private Ryan. Sure, digital technology now makes it possible to follow a bomb all the way to its target, from the bomb’s point of view, while hundreds of horrified people are crushed in the stampede to escape. But Mr. Bay is less interested in the Terry and the Pirates cartoon heroism of Rafe and Danny, dressed in hula shirts while shooting down seven Japanese planes. Despite the stunts, the 35-minute attack sequence is a muddle of lightning cuts and ear-blasting fireworks. When the smoke clears, Evelyn figures it’s time to tell Rafe she’s going to have Danny’s baby: “I didn’t know until the day you showed up-and then all this happened!” The audience drowns out the sound track at last-with laughter. Clearly, it is time for section three.
In the third hour of what seems more like three days, Franklin D. Roosevelt (an unrecognizable Jon Voight) unlocks his paralyzed legs, stands up in a burst of vein-popping American patriotism and challenges his cabinet to match this impossible act of bravery by bombing Tokyo. In an annoying disregard for the passage of time, it’s now 1942 and, although Evelyn is still the size of a Quonset hut, Rafe and Danny desert her again to join Colonel James Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) in a retaliatory suicide mission with 16 planes that are soon running out of fuel over enemy lines, while Evelyn waits to see which of the men will raise her baby. In one final embrace as the Japanese approach the downed pilots with machine guns, Rafe says, “You can’t die-you’re gonna be a father,” and Danny replies, “No, you are.”
There’s more, but who can bear it? I, for one, couldn’t wait to get home to my video collection and watch 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, a much better (and infinitely less phony) depiction of Doolittle’s Raid, with the added bonus of Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson in the bargain. In the epilogue, Evelyn informs us that her brave men and their suicide mission were the turning point in World War II-a bit of news that must come as a shock to the surviving veterans of Guadalcanal, Bataan, Midway, the Battle of the Bulge and the Normandy invasion. In the jumble of mixed intentions and missed opportunities, it almost seems like an afterthought casting Cuba Gooding Jr. in the small role of real-life hero Dorie Miller, the Navy cook who became the first black American to win the Navy Cross. It’s a role so similar to the one he played in the recent Men of Honor that it scarcely registers as a stretch. In a similar waste of talent, Dan Aykroyd pops in from time to time as an intelligence officer who warns the Pentagon the Japanese are on their way, but nobody listens. The moral in this movie, if there is one, is “Always trust Dan Aykroyd. He knows things.”
Even with the impressive action sequences, you’d think someone would have shown some concern about a screenplay so riddled with clichés that the audience finds itself saying the lines before the actors do. In Pearl Harbor the stars may lack charisma, but that’s no excuse for making them look like typical Disney product placements. Kate Beckinsale’s Evelyn is so restrained and slackly underwritten you can’t distinguish her from the other nurses. Ben Affleck does his standard cocky, arrogant routine, and Josh Hartnett is a wounded 8×10 glossy. Both of them are prettier than the girl they both love; the difference is that Mr. Affleck wears more serious mascara. For a film with a 40′s retro design, nobody smokes much, and the lugubrious, tonsil-busting pop song screeched out of tune by Faith Hill during the interminable end credits wrecks any claim to period authenticity. One can hear the Bruckheimer-Bay team now: “Let’s throw in an Oscar contender for Best Song while we’re at it.”
Millions of bombs are dropped in Pearl Harbor. They should have dropped the biggest bomb of all on the movie itself.
Susannah McCorkle And the Blues
The tragic death of Susannah McCorkle, a native Californian who brought elegance, perfectionism and order to the turbulence of jazz singing and took the cabaret world by storm, has filled me with an overwhelming sadness. Leaping from the 16th-floor window of her apartment on West 86th Street in the early-morning darkness of May 19 was an uncustomarily violent final eight bars for a performer distinguished by grace, self-control, a sunny disposition and an obsessive abhorrence of anything disorderly. The diminishing world of sophisticated popular music mourns the loss of a great and unique stylist. But to her friends, the loss is much greater than words can describe.
McCorkle had an uncanny way of knowing instinctively when other people were in trouble. During each personal and professional setback in my own life, she was the first person on the phone to offer comfort, strength and a broad shoulder to lean on, yet she couldn’t find the inner resources to conquer the demons that challenged her own self-confidence. Those of us who were blessed by her friendship feel like failures, yet she kept her own depression to herself. She was two people, really. The first was a consummate artist with impeccable taste in music who sang spectacular songs uncluttered by all the boring, improvised pretentiousness that makes jazz singers unlistenable, constantly honed her craft, spoke five languages fluently, wrote brilliant articles and short stories, recorded 17 albums and was religiously attentive to diet and exercise. The second was an insecure child-woman from a dysfunctional family with a history of mental illness who spent her life looking for love, an independent feminist still craving romance, a vulnerable stylist unappreciated by a large public audience, a born care-giver with no one to care for.
Uncertain of her future as a singer, unable to deal with the crass and vulgar jerks who run the cabaret world, suddenly without work and facing career setbacks, she found herself isolated and losing her grip on reality. There is much more, but the bottom line is that she could no longer negotiate the rude detours her life and work had taken. In her meticulous way, she left this world alone, leaving us haunted by the lyrics to “Me and the Blues,” a Harry Warren song she learned from an old Mildred Bailey record and recorded on her first solo album: “I’m goin’ down and tell my troubles to the river …. / Can’t go on livin’, who’d go on livin’ if they were in my shoes …. / That’s one way certain, of separatin’ me and the blues.”
Goodbye, Susannah. You’re in a happier place now, where no sour notes are heard and hope rests eternal, but you’ve left the rest of us with new blues of our own.