Pearl Harbor isn't really a movie at all, but a highlight reel prepared for a Jerry Bruckheimer career retrospective. The film is as impressive and as empty as any the producer has ever made -- most of which seem to have been cut and pasted into it. There's Top Gun: Two hotshot pilots, Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), are called on the carpet by their commanding officer, James Doolittle (Alec Baldwin), for their hotshot high jinks. But after the two prove their mettle over the smoke- and Zero-filled skies of Hawaii, Doolittle rounds them up for a top-secret mission. He needs the best of the best to bomb Japan, and only Maverick and Goose can lead the charge. Then there's Armageddon: As the world burns, there's still time for the young and restless to fall in love. Once more, Affleck finds himself caught in a love triangle, this time with his childhood best friend, Danny, and the women they both crave, a nurse named Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale). Mix in a little March or Die and Crimson Tide, and Pearl Harbor is the war movie Bruckheimer's been trying to make for nearly 25 years -- a brilliant spectacle, bereft of any humanity. Despite its innumerable holocausts, it's still cold to the touch.
Bruckheimer and director-cum-co-conspirator Michael Bay have even managed to make a movie about the date that will live in infamy and still tack on a (relatively) happy ending: The film concludes not with the destruction of Pearl Harbor -- which occurs well into the movie and long before its finale -- nor its aftermath, but with Doolittle's April 1942 raid over Tokyo, which was but a "pinprick" compared to the sledgehammer used by the Japanese over Hawaii. We're ushered out of the theater with comforting words spoken by Evelyn: "America suffered," she insists, "but it grew stronger." Bruckheimer, who always manages to sneak in a fluttering Old Glory into each of his pictures, all but stands on the bow of the U.S.S. Arizona himself, waving the flag atop the pile of cash this movie's sure to take in.
Pearl Harbor plays like some 1950s vestige (or a 1980s miniseries); it's a WWII movie bereft of post-Vietnam War cynicism. Every man and woman is a hero, untouched by cowardice. There's the nurse (Beckinsale) who goes to Pearl Harbor for a little fun in the sun and winds up knee-deep in gore; she's the calm in the center of the whirlwind, the only one sane enough and strong enough to tend to the wounded. There's the black cook (Cuba Gooding Jr., relegated to the role of token) who joined the Navy to become a man, only to be treated like a boy. Then there's Rafe, the poster boy for heroism, the indestructible killing machine who volunteers to fight with the British long before the Americans have even joined the war.
Yet jingoism and romance make for a lethal cocktail, especially when Bruckheimer and Bay are good at only one thing: blowing stuff up. Every line of dialogue, every sanctimonious speech is delivered with symphonic accompaniment, as though the words themselves are too hollow to effect any real sting. Screenwriter Randall Wallace, like Bay and Bruckheimer, is a hip-hop filmmaker: In lieu of original ideas, he samples from other war movies until the audience knows the dialogue by heart. "I'm not anxious to die, sir," Rafe tells one officer. "I'm anxious to matter." Little wonder, then, the movie feels so empty most of the time -- you've memorized every word long before you've actually seen it.
The battle proper doesn't take place until the movie's more than half over, and by then it's a relief from the banal soap opera. Producer and director are shameless, building to the carnage the way a new lover might tease his love object with endless foreplay. By the time the explosions come, they last forever -- bomb upon bomb, explosion upon explosion, corpse upon corpse. We even sit atop a bomb as it plows into the Arizona, burrows deep within its hull, and tears asunder the mighty ship from the inside out. But where Terry Southern gave us a bomb's-eye view in Dr. Strangelove to play up the idiocy of war, Bay does it for kicks and grins.
Pearl Harbor has no interest in the hows and whys that led to the Japanese attack, only in the booms. Tora! Tora! Tora! -- Richard Fleischer's 1970 Pearl Harbor film, told from the Japanese and American perspectives with all the passion of a three-hour classroom lecture -- was about the details, peace talks, and betrayals. But Pearl Harbor can't be bothered with history. Figures such as President Roosevelt (Jon Voight) and Admiral Yamamoto (Mako) are bit players in a movie obsessed with scenes of destruction and sex in airplane hangars. It's war porn, a movie that revels in the carnage -- this might as well be the attack on the Death Star or the sinking of the Titanic.
Bay, who directed previous Bruckheimer films The Rock and Armageddon, doesn't waste a single frame; every shot is its own Rockwell painting, glistening with damp-eyed nostalgia and sticky sentimentality. He frames his lovers with sunsets and smoke, but Affleck, Hartnett, and Beckinsale aren't big enough to fill the canvas. Rafe, Danny, and Evelyn aren't characters so much as they're icons lifted from the novels of Herman Wouk; in the end, it's not about who lives or dies, but who ends up with whom. War may be hell, but it's apparently nothing compared to sharing a woman with your best friend.