Notice, please, that we didn't say Pearl Harbor is a totally terrible movie. It is watchable in a dim, beclouded sort of way. But one rather thinks that a film trying to recapture the romantic raptures and ruptures people suffered as World War II shattered their normality needs to impart a sense of their desperation as tragic possibility suddenly loomed in their lives.
This, though, is precisely what this carefully oiled and polished machine lacks. Its problem lies principally, but not exclusively, with its love story. The movie's makers--producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Michael Bay and writer Randall Wallace--looked unashamedly at Titanic and found its heated romance the perfect device to narrow the distance between a great historical happening and today's essentially antihistorical audience. Pearl Harbor thus spends a lot of time with Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), boyhood pals who grow up to be hot pilots falling in love with the same woman, a Navy nurse named Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale). Rafe is first in line, but when he goes missing and is presumed dead in the Battle of Britain, Danny, who lands up at Pearl Harbor with Evelyn, fills in for him--rather too successfully. Evelyn is pregnant when Rafe comes back from the dead, just in time for Dec. 7.
It requires the Doolittle raid on Japan, four months later, to resolve this romantic conundrum by knocking a corner off the triangle. It requires a lot of patience for an audience to sit through the dithering. They're nice kids and all that, but they don't exactly claw madly at one another. It's as if they know that someday they're going to be part of "the Greatest Generation" and don't want to offend Tom Brokaw. Besides, megahistory and personal history never integrate here.
That leaves Cuba Gooding Jr. playing a real historical figure, Dorie Miller, for us to root for. Miller was a cook who, though untrained, manned a gun and may have shot down one or two Japanese planes. But his character is merely sketched into the narrative, and the entire assault on Pearl has a curiously abstract air about it. The bodies fly spectacularly when the Arizona is hit, but we don't know, thus care about, the victims.
It's possible this is a story you can't tell from the bottom up. Maybe the real Pearl Harbor tragedy took place in Tokyo and Washington--bunches of old guys sitting around talking erroneous geopolitics. They play small roles here, and you can't expect anyone to make a big-time movie about their murmured miscalculations. You do, however, have a right to the kind of high, passionate drama that's missing from this movie.