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It was a sunny day at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and much of the crew of the U.S.S. Tennessee was sunning at leisure on the fantail. When the first bombers marked with the bright-red sun of the Japanese Empire came into sight, the Americans didn’t know what to make of them. In the coming hours, with the U.S.S. West Virginia sunk with a loss of 106 men, the Arizona blown up and 1,177 men dead, and the Oklahoma capsized from torpedo hits losing 429 more men, America knew it was in a major war. The smell of oil and burning flesh filled the air. Scorched bodies were stacked on the decks of U.S. warships like so many logs. The Americans had little prejudice against the Japanese. The Japanese girls they had been encountering in the bars of Honolulu had been distinctly friendly. But now, this was war.
America’s sense of invulnerability had disappeared in minutes. The attack in the movie “Pearl Harbor,” opening next weekend lasts 40 minutes, but in far less time than that, America had received the military shock of the century. The jewels of its Pacific Fleet were in the process of fiery destruction at Pearl Harbor, and the nation was in a state of shock ? just the thing to bring it into a war mood said the analysts at the time. And the orange-red explosions and fragments of flying armor that fill the air give the film a sudden shocking impression of reality. The terrifying new engine of war was the carrier-launched bomber. The audience gets to see much of the mayhem the Japanese bombers wreaked on U.S. ships.
Into this multi-million dollar explosive mix, “Pearl Harbor” introduces not one, but two love stories. They fit about as well as love stories would interjected into the Battle of Gettysburg. Boyhood buddies, now hotshot pilots, Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) both love pretty Navy nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) ? Danny only after he and Evelyn think Rafe is dead, shot down during the Battle of Britain. Rafe’s return practically on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack drives the two friends apart until the common cause of fighting the Japanese heals all wounds. The dialogue unfortunately is as flat and predictable as the love triangle itself.
The largest Asian-American organization, the Japanese America Citizen’ League ? is already unhappy about the film even before its opening, fearing the movie could fuel hatred of Americans of Asian descent. The JACL is also disturbed by a brief scene depicting a real-life Japanese American dentist who had conversations with Japanese officials prior to the bombing. The dentist is shown in the film as acting as a spy for the Japanese government. In fact, according to the JACL, the FBI cleared the dentist of any charges of disloyalty.
The Disney Company which is releasing the film under its Touchstone Pictures banner, is very aware of the enormous potential market the film has in Japan (“Titanic” did huge business there), and is making some minor adjustments and trimming of dialogue so as not to ruffle any Japanese sensibilities. The Japanese are shown throughout the film to be noble warriors. A line in the script describing ? accurately ? how the Japanese executed a couple of downed American pilots as war criminals was cut to avoid just such a risk. The Japanese admiral, Isoroku Yamamoto, who orchestrated the attack is presented as dignified, a worthy adversary.
Apparently, the lines of dialogue of General Doolittle (Alec Baldwin), in reply to a question of what he would do if over Japan and he doesn’t have enough fuel to make it to mainland China, saying he would position his plane for the largest populated area and go crashing down for maximum damage are also being omitted in the film version destined for the Japanese market.
The filmmakers said they intentionally included several scenes in the movie to explain why the Japanese felt they had to attack the U.S. “But the movie is not a history lesson,” said director Michael Bay, “what you get from the movie is the essence of what it felt like to be at Pearl Harbor the morning of the attack.” The film also, of course, tells its love story before, during, and after the attack. If anything, the costly war scenes seem far more authentic than the love scenes, an upshot the filmmakers might have anticipated.
Despite all the stunning display of explosions and terrifying destruction, the film remains curiously without passion. Actually, only in a few brief scenes with Cuba Gooding, Jr., cast presumably to show African-Americans did take part in this epic day in American history, do you get an electric charge making you realize what it must have meant to be at Pearl Harbor. Or maybe it’s that Gooding is just that much more of a convincing actor. But audiences do let out a whoop when he mans an anti-aircraft gun and shoots down one of the Japanese planes. This scene ? and the fact that it was an African-American sailor who brought down the enemy plane and was decorated for it ? is factually accurate.
Will “Pearl Harbor” be the super summer movie of 2001? Will the Japanese like it as much as “Titanic”? We shall see.