Film Review: Pearl Harbor
By Nicholas Evan Sarantakes
Nicholas Evan Sarantakes is the author of Keystone: The American Occupation of Okinawa and U.S.-Japanese Relations (2000). He is an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University-Commerce, where he teaches a course on World War II. He is currently working on a study about the making of the film Patton.
Hollywood loves Pearl Harbor. The recent film Pearl Harbor is the fifth motion picture made using the Japanese attack on Hawaii as a back drop: From Here to Eternity (1953), In Harm's Way (1965), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), and The Final Countdown (1980). There have also been three television mini-series: Pearl (1978), From Here to Eternity (1979) and The Winds of War (1983). This most recent production might very well be the worst from either an artistic or historical viewpoint.
First, the film is a bad piece of art. The film tries to copy the financial success of the film Titanic with a story of a love triangle set in an actual historical crisis. The bulk of the screen time focuses on the relationship of three fictional characters played by Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale. The characters Affleck and Hartnett play are Army Air Force fighter pilots that are best friends. The Affleck and Beckinsale characters meet in a Navy hospital, in a scene that is reminiscent of another film that producer Jerry Bruckheimer made, Top Gun, and then fall in love. Affleck decides to volunteer to serve in the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain and leaves Hartnett and Beckinsale as the military sends these two to Hawaii. The team of Bruckheimer, director Michael Bay, and screenwriter Randall Wallace faced a dilemma: how to bring Hartnett and Beckinsale together given their strong feelings for Affleck and how to do so without making either of them look unsympathetic. The solution to their problem comes straight out of television soap operas: Affleck is reported killed in action. Slowly the two put aside their mutual pain and discover their attraction to one another. Then, suddenly Affleck returns from the dead after having survived a crash in the English Channel. Needless to say, he is angry at what he finds. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor interrupts and the two friends put aside their difference and take on the enemy, downing several Japanese planes. In order, to resolve the triangle and end on a patriotic note, the BBW team tack on the Doolittle raid. Affleck and Hartnett join this mission, suddenly becoming bomber pilots. Hartnett dies on this assignment, but before his demise he learns he will become a father and tells Affleck to raise his child. Affleck and Beckinsale reunite and become a family at the end of the film. The team of BBW could have cut off half an hour from the movie, and maybe had more emotional impact, if they had the resolution take place on December 7, but including the Doolittle section allows American audiences to leave the theater with a nice patriotic feeling.
The critics have been unkind to this film and the public has agreed. Despite having the second best Memorial Day opening ever in North America, this movie has done poorly at the box office in subsequent weeks. The vibrating camera and editing of the action scenes leave the viewer feeling dizzy and confused. Transition shots, particularly these during the portion of the film about the Doolittle raid, seem contrived. The soft lighting and slow motion in the hospital scenes where Beckinsale deals with the aftermath of the attack attempt to present the pain and suffering of war, but Bay just ends up boring the viewer. The attack takes up a surprisingly small amount of screen time and some significant elements of this story never get told. The computer-generated special effects are one of the strongest parts of the film, but at times the illusion fails and you can tell you are looking at computer-generated images. Simply put, movie magic is not reason enough to watch this film.
The movie is also bad history. To be fair, the filmmakers have never attempted to present themselves as historians. The creative forces behind this film give their viewers an accurate movie, if judged only one the widest of scales-there was a U.S. naval base in Hawaii, it was called Pearl Harbor, the Japanese did attack with planes on December 7-but there are several significant shortcomings, indicating that BBW simply lacked an understanding of their subject matter. Much of the film is implausible. Why is Affleck, an Army Air Force pilot, getting his physical in a U.S. Navy hospital? Why does Affleck report to his RAF base in a U.S. Army uniform? Why are there no other Americans in his Eagle Squadron? Why is he suddenly out of the RAF after he recovers from his dunk in the Channel? When the flyers return from the Doolittle raid, Beckinsale is waiting to greet them. Only as Affleck and his buddies haul Hartnett's coffin out of the plane does she learn of his death. The scene is supposed to be a key dramatic moment; the conflict of the love triangle has been broken. Instead, this moment is an example of both implausibility and bad story structure.
Other parts of the movie are absurd. The film has the Japanese cabinet meeting outside and Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku getting the idea for the attack in a moment of inspiration as he watches children playing with a kite. The attack is plotted on giant maps of Hawaii located on stone walls. Bay confuses the Japanese Naval Ensign for the national flag and has it displayed in a very odd way. With the help of a U.S. Army Signal Corps officer she saved on December 7th, Beckinsale listens to the progress of the Doolittle raid on the radio as it happens, which was not possible given the technology of the day. The contention of the voiceover that Beckinsale provides at the end of the movie that the Doolittle raid was the turning point in the war is a joke and would have been news to the men on Guadalcanal or in the waters off Midway.
Other parts of the movie are patronizing. Jon Voight looks and sounds like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but his actions are a different story. Voight's FDR tells his advisors and staff that nothing is impossible and to prove his point, he pushes his wheelchair aside and on his own power extends his leg braces to support himself in a standing position. In addition to be condescending, this scene is just plain wrong. The real FDR went to great lengths to hide his affliction and never drew attention to it, except when visiting the wounded in hospitals.
Some of the distortions are necessary, given the realities of 2001. In one scene, a Japanese-American dentist with an office overlooking the naval base receives an odd call from someone in Japan asking about weather conditions. A U.S. Army official monitoring this call observes that the dentist does not know the person on the other end, a point the character makes after the call has ended. The communication technology of 1941 did not allow for such trans-Pacific calls. More importantly, this scene is designed to show that Japanese-Americans were loyal and is an effort to avoid questioning the loyalty of this ethnic group. This scene might be good politics, but is bad history. Although not done on a wide scale basis, Japanese-Americans did help the Japanese intelligence gathering efforts in Hawaii.
Most of the journalistic coverage on the historical accuracy of the film has settled on fairly small issues of fact that the movie got wrong and there are mistakes, but many moments have a factual foundation. Bay and Wallace interviewed a number of veterans and listened to their stories about the attack. They also read some secondary works and many of the visual images in the film came from these sources. There are a number of good scenes that show the trauma of the attack: men trapped in their ships drowning, and an underwater perspective of sailors treading water as the U.S. flag sinks beneath them. If there were more scenes like these, this might have been a good movie. It should also be added that BBW avoid scapegoating. No one American is blamed for the humiliation that came that December and the Japanese are presented as human beings. Mako's take on Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku is a plausible one. He shows the admiral's reluctance to have Japan take on the U.S. Some of his lines are questionable, including the "sleeping giant" quote, which appears to have been invented by the makers of Tora! Tora! Tora!. The flying derring-do of Affleck and Hartnett is based on the real life actions of Lieutenants George S. Welch and Kenneth Taylor. Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s character, Doris Miller, was a real individual. He was the boxing champion of his ship, was with Captain Mervyn Bennion as the skipper of the West Virginia died (although there were others), did man a machine gun, and did win the Navy Cross for his actions that day.
So, how should we historians react to this film? We should embrace it! Yes, embrace it. The film has inspired a new interest in this history in many of its viewers. This production also makes for a great strawman that we can knock down easily in both the classroom and in our writings. We can also use this film to show our colleagues that the embattled field of military history has a large following that other esoteric subfields lack. This interest means classes that will make, which can be important depending on the funding arrangements in place at the institutions where we all work. Finally, we can rest assured that another Pearl Harbor movie will come along sooner or later, and it will most likely be better.