By Jacob Montgomery (Texas)
I went to go visit the Pearl Harbor memorial site with my family back in 2008. It was a great experience for me, and it was one of the most daunting things I’ve ever done. I hope one day I’ll be able to go back and revisit the site, now that I’m more mature than I was 6 years ago and am able to more fully grasp both the horror and importance of that event. The reason I bring this up is because before my family went to Hawaii, we considered getting a copy of this film and watching it before our trip. For reasons I can’t really remember, we never got around to watching it. And honestly, I’m kind of glad we didn’t.
The film follows Captain Rafe McCawley, played by Ben Affleck, and his best friend Danny Walker, played by Josh Hartnett, who both join the war and also fall in love in the same woman, a nurse Evelyn Johnson, played by Kate Beckinsale. What, you thought this film was going to be about the people at Pearl Harbor? Why would you think that?
Okay, I’m not being entirely fair here. After all, we need characters to follow and identify with, like in Titanic. However there are many problems with the way it’s done here. For one, the characters in this film aren’t likable. Also the characters rarely spend any time at Pearl Harbor prior to the attack, so we don’t get a chance to get to know any of the real people that were involved in the attack. Normally I wouldn’t mind too much except that the people we’re following are completely fictional, so why are we following them if they’re not going to actually be on the ships?
Ben Affleck is an actor I have mixed feelings towards. He’s an okay actor most of the time, never anything Oscar-worthy, but when he’s bad, he’s really bad. Though this film doesn’t give him much to work with, he makes the material much worse. It doesn’t help that his character is a smarmy unlikable dolt, but Affleck adds a whole other level that makes the character far more unlikable than should’ve been allowed. And that’s a huge problem considering he’s the protagonist. It’s a good thing Ben Affleck is a much better director than he is an actor.
I don’t know how much blame to put on Michael Bay for this film, but I do hear that there were a lot of studio execs breathing down his neck throughout most of production, so I’m willing to give him quite a bit of leeway here. I am willing to blame Randall Wallace more for what’s wrong with this film than Bay. I attribute most of the film’s historical inaccuracies to Wallace considering he also wrote the screenplay for the widely historically inaccurate Braveheart.
Historically speaking, this film falls flat. The film gets a lot of basic facts incorrect. Most offensively, it paints the Japanese as completely evil monsters, and Americans as completely innocent, when war is not that simple. Like in the attack sequence, we get scenes of Japanese pilots intentionally shooting at the hospital and several civilians, killing a bucket load of them. However in real life this did not happen and in fact only one civilian was killed in the attack, and it was by accident. Then later in the film, the Doolittle raid shows the Americans only killing soldiers, when in reality they also fired on and killed Japanese civilians. I get artistic liberty, but there’s something disturbingly jingoistic about this film’s historical accuracy.
Though I have harped on this film a lot, I will say that where this film shines is the attack itself. I know that sounds contradictory to what I’ve been saying, but honestly, other than some inaccuracies that can be distracting, the 45-minute sequence of the actual attack is incredibly well done. There some intense moments, it’s heartbreaking, and the film does a decent job of showing how this attack impacted America. I give Michael Bay a lot of credit for doing that part mostly well, as well as other behind-the-scenes pyrotechnics, including the incredible visual effects, and the beautifully painful shots of the aftermath of the attack.
Does that one positive aspect save the film? No. The film is still 3 hours long, which isn’t necessary, it focuses on the wrong characters, and the film is too inaccurate for me. The romantic plot that takes the forefront is not interesting or engaging, and the film would’ve heavily benefited if they had focused on some of the real life figures more. If you’re still not sure, I’d say at the very least you can watch the attack sequence, because it’s incredibly well done. There, I’ve saved 2 hours of your life.