Pearl Harbor sinks (nice lighting, though)

Somewhere in the middle of "Pearl Harbor" I thought back to a college art-history lesson about J.M.W. Turner, the great Romantic period painter.

Turner painted dramatic subjects like shipwrecks, fighting battleships, or Britain's burning Houses of Parliament, but he was always primarily interested in capturing the brilliant textures of light on the sunsets and skies in the background.

The same observation applies to director Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor." The movie's central love story and depiction of the Japanese attack of Dec. 7, 1941, seem little more than an elaborate excuse for Bay to bathe his screen in every conceivable hue of light in the spectrum. Whether it's the amber haze of a sunset (and you'd be hard pressed to recall another movie with as many shots of sunsets or sunrises), an underwater scene pierced by a beam of sunlight, or the flicker of a screen projector inside a cinema, Bay lights his subject matter in spectacular fashion.

If only the same attention had been paid to the storytelling. Unlike an earlier film set in Pearl Harbor, "From Here to Eternity" (1953), the whole point of Mr. Bay's film is not to tell a story so much as it is to re-create "a day that will live in infamy."

The story, such as it is, from a sprawling script by Randall Wallace (who also wrote "Braveheart"), introduces us to two cocky fighter pilots, Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett), whose close bond is threatened when both fall for Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a pretty Naval nurse.

In between upsetting their commanding officer by staging a fighter plane game of dare above an airstrip control tower (a straight lift from "Top Gun") and an obligatory bar room brawl, the two actors do little more than clench their jaws a lot and find as many opportunities as possible to show off their rippling musculature - even in the war scenes.

Beckinsale looks radiant throughout (thanks to Bay's lighting, each facial contour has a silver lining during the close-ups), but she strains in vain to downplay her ghastly dialogue. When one character she had thought dead returns unscathed, she gets to utter the words, "you're real."

There's no real romantic frisson between the characters either. Alas, Bay can't resist setting a scene on a train station platform so that Rafe and Evelyn are wreathed in steam as they kiss.

Now that's original.

No one will leave "Pearl Harbor" with any comprehension of why Japan attacked in the first place. Instead we are offered a simplistic and hagiographic portrait of FDR (that lighting!) played by Jon Voight. Among other films that have dealt with Pearl Harbor, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (1970) did a much better job of explaining the lead-up to the hostilities.

When the attack sequence does begin, Bay conjures up images meant to be as iconic as Norman Rockwell illustrations.

Japanese zeros sweep over a woman hanging up her laundry, cute kids playing baseball, and some Boy Scouts. If there had been any white-picket-fence bungalows on the island, they'd have had a flyover too. "Look!" the film yells, here come the Japanese, and, by golly, they're invading the innocent American way of life!

The lack of subtlety and unnatural feel carries over to the scenes of carnage in the harbor. Bay ought to have learned something from Steven Spielberg: The battleground sequences in "Saving Private Ryan" were effectively shocking because of their matter-of-factness. But Bay's choreography turns war scenes into inappropriate action-adventure.

Worse, the filmmakers feel it would be a bit of a downer for American audiences if the United States were left defeated. So our heroes climb into their cockpits and strike back at Japan (cue the marching band orchestration).

Over its interminable three hours, "Pearl Harbor" leaves no cliche unspent (even the dog lives). So calculated is the film in its attempt to lure the same wide demographic that flocked to "Titanic," that the Japanese characters get a line or two to underscore their humanity - but it merely comes off seeming like a half-hearted sop for Japanese moviegoers. Tellingly, when Tokyo is bombed, we don't see a single Japanese person suffer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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