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Big Bomb



Pearl Harbor (PG-13)
Touchstone Pictures

It's easy enough to say that director Michael Bay (Armageddon) has succeeded at creating a bonafide summer blockbuster via outstanding special effects with Pearl Harbor. In fact, most folks leaving the theater, while chortling over the maudlin love triangle that frames the film, agree that the extended bombing run over Oahu that is the film's centerpiece carries it.

But that is because the film's all-too-jaded and knowing producers, 13 in all including Jerry Bruckheimer (Con Air), seized upon two truths when orchestrating the release of their blockbuster: 1) Because it is the first big film of the summer, audiences will expect and accept a special-effects extravaganza; and 2) No American can resist the marketing appeal of a bombs-bursting-in-air blow out commemorating the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, released on Memorial Day weekend.

Producers, marketers, actors, the screenwriter and audiences all should be ashamed. Pearl Harbor is a bald-faced exploitation flick, preying on our nation's collective if fuzzy memory of being attacked, faulty in its historic re-creation, insipid in its lame, manipulative love story, and embarrassingly vapid in its telling of one of the critical military attacks of the 20th century.

Yes, the special effects are spectacular, but that too becomes a handicap for the film. Computer-generated images of planes flying barely 20 feet above the ground, cutting through the jagged, green mountaintops of Oahu's windward coast, then surgically slicing their way through the Pearl Harbor naval fleet and blowing it to smithereens may be thrilling but they are not moving. The Japanese pilots are depicted as robotic automatons. We sit dazed, watching thousands of soldiers sliding across the massive decks, plummeting into the sea ( la Titanic), many trapped in the hull of the sinking U.S.S. Arizona. The carnage of that day never seems real or human. It seems merely computer-generated, sterile and spectacular.

It doesn't help that while Pearl Harbor is being bombed, we know we are going to have to suffer through the cowboy/flyboy antics of the film's two protagonists, childhood best friends Rafe and Danny played by Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, as they jump into the last remaining undamaged planes on the island and kick some Japanese butt. How many times can a viewer watch Affleck pump his arm up in victory, yelling "Yes!" just like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars before wondering exactly what this soldier's motivation for fighting might be?

Character development is nonexistent in this overly long, overly sentimental war story. Rafe and Danny merely spout lines borrowed from vintage World War II dramas, and British actress Kate Beckinsale as Evelyn, the nurse both men love, plays one clichd scene after another -- looking starstruck, looking forlorn, exiting the bathroom delicately dabbing at her lips so that we'll know she's suffering from morning sickness and -- oops! -- is pregnant with the wrong guy's baby.

Inconsistency and geographic inaccuracy play a big part in Pearl Harbor. In one scene, set in 1940s Waikiki, Danny asks Evelyn if he can walk her home. We assume that she lives in the Pearl Harbor officer's quarters which are not even in the same relative vicinity. And earlier, when Rafe volunteers to join a flying fighter squadron in England, his departure from New York is by train. It's unclear where the train is headed but it takes a few seconds to realize he won't be riding the rails across the Atlantic Ocean.

Moreover, Pearl Harbor attempts to be two movies in one. We're more than ready to leave the theater at the end of the second hour, when the Japanese planes have receded, Rafe and Danny have kicked Jap butt and the United States is clearly at war. But the filmmakers tack on the Doolittle raid over Tokyo and another hour of historically fuzzy war footage, setting the scene for the death of one of the romantic leads -- I won't say which, but you'll know which guy is destined to be sacrificed long before he chatters his teeth in his blubbering best friend's arms.

At the end of three hours, we are served up a gooey happy-ending shot through a Vaseline-smeared lens. A voiceover and swelling violins explain to us that Pearl Harbor shook the United States out of its national doldrums and set us on the road to greatness.

And that, my friends, is history, summer blockbuster style.

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