Things haven’t changed much since I was a wee little munchkin of a movie-watcher. My affection for learning about the early to mid-20th century was already growing in leaps and bounds, and along with that came a love for 20th century period films.
As luck would have it, one such film was released in 2001 and instantly became a favorite of mine: Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. I was all of nine years old when the film was released in May of that year (a few months away from turning 10, since my birthday is in July).
The film, which runs at just over three hours in length, follows the time leading up to the United States’ involvement in World War II and a bit of the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack.
At the heart of it all are three central characters – Rafe (Ben Affleck), Danny (Josh Hartnett) and Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) – who eventually get tangled up into a love triangle after Evelyn mistakenly believes that Rafe has been killed in action and takes that as a sign that she should get cozy with his best friend. Naturally, personal and military drama ensue throughout the length of the film.
The pretty 1940s outfits and Josh Hartnett (who I was mildly in love with after watching Here on Earth – which doesn’t hold up at all, but that’s another post – about year earlier) are probably what initially attracted me to the movie, since my few years of education had only given me the bare minimum of historical context on the war.
In terms of entertainment value, the film certainly holds up. It’s cornier than I remember in dialogue, stereotypical soldier-nurse relationship jokes and of course an ultra-cheesy love story. But as you probably know by now, I love the cheese, so while I don’t take the film quite as seriously as I used to, I still get a lot of enjoyment out of watching all of the drama play out.
That being said, there is a bit too much going on here. Alongside the central love triangle we see a multitude of other relationships progress (most notably Red and Betty, who are completely adorable), a country on the brink of entering a worldwide war, big-budget action sequences and political drama. All of these elements certainly keep the film from being dull, but the plot sometimes feels too busy and overwhelmed.
This film usually gets a lot of flack for the romantic, fluffy elements of the story. Maybe it’s stereotypical of me to say this as a female viewer, but without that part of the plot I probably wouldn’t love this film. I’m just not one for blow-’em-ups, and without the personal side of the story this would have been nothing more than a historically inaccurate blow-’em-up.
I read recently that Michael Bay’s intent with the romantic scenes was to be sure that they would fit right into any 1940s romantic film and maintain the charming, cute mood of romantic films from that decade. I applaud him for the effort here (especially with the champagne cork scene, which I can totally see as a deleted scene from The Clock if Judy Garland’s character in that film had any medical knowledge). But as an avid viewer of classic films and of classic romances in particular, I don’t think the performances are quite good enough to uphold the 1940s level of rom-dram greatness.
The film has also been criticized for historical inaccuracy. It is true that the film has inaccuracies and doesn’t exactly provide a sensitive portrayal of Japanese people/culture, which is very obviously problematic.
But I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: historical fiction is just that – fiction! You shouldn’t sit down and watch a fictional Hollywood movie about World War II with expectations to learn everything that you ever wanted to know about the real events. They’re always going to be sensationalized for entertainment value.
And I do have to give this particular film credit for bringing home the chaos of the attack as well as the ambivalent attitude of Americans toward the war before the country actually got involved, despite its inaccuracies.
Pearl Harbor holds up pretty well in comparison with how much I loved it as a young’n. I see more of the cheese and inaccuracy of it now, but it’s still a highly enjoyable blockbuster that I’ll continue to watch and enjoy for years to come.