In Defense Of Pearl Harbor

Photo: Everett.
Fifteen years ago today, Pearl Harbor hit theaters. Upon its release, the three-hour Michael Bay-directed war drama immediately became a pretty universally reviled film — you know, the kind that everybody loves to shit all over. The movie — which stars Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett as lifelong BFFs and fighter pilots, and Kate Beckinsale as the nurse who captures both their hearts — garnered a paltry 25% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
"Mostly tests one's patience with unseaworthy dialogue and performers drowning in oily cliches," wrote The Hollywood Reporter. USA Today dubbed it "one of the wimpiest wartime romances ever filmed," while The Wall Street Journal called it a "blockheaded, hollow-hearted industrial enterprise." Slate described the film as "essentially Top Gun with period costumes and the campy homoeroticism in check." (Hold up — that actually sounds pretty groovy to us.)
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So, is it really god-awful? Razzie Award-worthy? Listen, I'm not going to lay out an argument for retroactive Oscar recognition or anything here. Nor am I going to try to convince you it's 100% historically accurate and not a minute too long. But is it the indefensible piece of shit everybody made it out to be? Hell no! Pearl Harbor is a pretty decent movie with a pretty decent list of redemptive qualities (not even counting Ben and Josh's good looks). Fifteen years later, here is why you should reconsider your hatred of Pearl Harbor.
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Manage Your Expectations, People
Okay, so I do think Pearl Harbor is one of those movies best approached with few expectations. It's hard to please everybody with a movie like this: an action-romance-history-drama. Action fans were put off by all the mushy romance. History buffs were miffed at the factual inaccuracies. Baby boomers complained that the movie romanticized, idealized, or even trivialized wartime.

The truth is that Pearl Harbor is a fictional romance set against a real historical event, à la Titanic. If you sit down expecting a historical drama with a touch of romance, it's totally understandable that you'd be annoyed at two hours of backstory development and shameless romantic triangulation.
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The Amazing Supporting Cast
Pearl Harbor actually boasts some acting heavyweights as real historical figures. Jon Voight is unrecognizable as FDR, sporting prosthetics to help him embody the iconic wartime president. His speech to the cabinet, here, is stirring.

Meanwhile, Alec Baldwin gives a hugely entertaining performance as the real-life Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle. Both men bring gravitas and panache to their respective roles.
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It Portrays The Japanese Respectfully
No, this shouldn't be such a big deal — but it is. War movies often over-glorify America and demonize the other side. And WWII movies especially have a habit of engaging in offensive stereotypes of the Japanese. This big-budget studio movie managed to avoid those racist pitfalls and depict the enemy not as heartless monsters but as people — people trying to achieve victory by making calculated military, social, and political decisions, just like the Americans.
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The Attack
Even the film's biggest haters can't discount the tautly constructed action centerpiece of the film. The CGI is brilliant, yes, but it's also a chilling, pulse-pounding, masterfully edited scene: the building of the dramatic tension, the uncanny sense of foreboding doom, the shiver-inducing shots of torpedoes shooting through the water like sharks, the confusion that turns to panic.

The sequence weaves seamlessly between personal traumatic experiences and the overall chaos. It's an incredible few minutes that really make audiences think about how it must have felt to be there on December 7, 1941.
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The Music
You guys, this theme. Hans Zimmer's epic score is crowned by "Tennessee," the soaring, sad, and beautiful orchestral number woven throughout the film. And Diane Warren's tear-jerking "There You'll Be" even garnered an Oscar nomination for best song.
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It Pays Recognition To The Nurses
While the battle scenes are for the most part mercifully devoid of excessive carnage, Pearl Harbor doesn't shy away from the utter chaos of the immediate aftermath. Watching the nurses — whose lives seemed downright glamorous in other parts of the movie — triage dying soldiers with missing limbs and burnt faces was difficult. But it's important to see the sacrifices made off the battlefield by people who weren't soldiers, and this horrific, chaotic triage scene accomplishes just that.
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Think Of The Youths
Maybe it's just me, but I've always thought that any piece of entertainment that can get young people to devote mental real estate to important things they would never have given two shits about otherwise is worth something. I was 10 years old when this movie came out, but I wasn't allowed to see it until a few years later. I distinctly remember asking my dad to explain the dynamics between the powers, and whether FDR actually gave this stirring speech after the attack. (He did.)

And to those who would complain about its historical accuracy being less than perfect, I'd argue that people don't remember the details, whether right or wrong. They remember powerful moments — which Pearl Harbor has in spades.
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