Boy, that Titanic sure did rake in a boatload of money, didn’t it? I have the feeling this thought raced through the collective mind of Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay as they planned Pearl Harbor, their epic examination of the events that took place on or about December 7, 1941. While Pearl doesn’t totally rip off James Cameron’s mega-hit, it certainly seems to be cut from the same cloth.
As with Titanic, Pearl takes factual events and adds a fictional spin to them. Both films go the romantic route in this regard. Roughly the first half of each flick deals with boy-girl relationships, and both include love triangles, though the approach taken to these entanglements varies. Nonetheless, after 90 minutes or so of mainly lovey-dovey material, the action flies during each movie’s second half.
Those are the points during which both films go for a more factual approach; because each flick’s initial half largely focuses on love affairs between fictional characters, those segments feature a smattering of realistic background but tend toward the fabricated side of the equation. Titanic and Pearl also play fairly loosely with some facts during their second halves, but that’s mainly because they continue to involve these made-up characters; the events that surround them come more closely from the truth.
At the start of Pearl in 1923, we meet young versions of Rafe McCawley (played by Jesse James as a boy and Ben Affleck as a man) and Danny Walker (Reiley McClendon as a youngster, Josh Hartnett as an adult) and briefly learn of their friendship and love for flying. Fast forward to maturity in 1941, and we find that they’ve joined the Army Air Corps and become the pilots they always wanted to be. Rafe meets nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) and they promptly fall for each other.
However, this relationship becomes disrupted when Rafe hooks up with the British Royal Air Force. With the US still not at war with the Nazis, he wants to do his part anyway, so he heads off to fight with the limeys. Unfortunately, he takes a hit during battle and seems lost.
This being a romance, someone needs to pick up the slack, so after they combat their hormones for a while, Danny and Evelyn soon become a hot and heavy couple, though not until both are transferred to Hawaii. (Ain’t that a coinky-dink?) To the surprise of absolutely no one - as though we believed a star like Affleck would vanish so early in the film! - eventually Rafe turns out not dead, and this creates a problem within the now-existing love triangle.
Luckily for them, war intrudes on their little soap opera. The Japanese strike Pearl Harbor, and a significant amount of the rest of the movie concentrates on this attack. However, the film doesn’t end when the bombs cease. Instead, it follows the American counter-response that took place a few months later when Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) led a bombing raid over Japanese turf. Inevitably, both Rafe and Danny become involved in this raid, and by the end of the film, their strained friendship and their relationship with Evelyn will finally get resolved.
Pearl Harbor took a serious critical thrashing when it hit screens last summer, but I suppose director Bay must be accustomed to those responses by now. Actually, this one may have caught him by surprise, because I think he believed the flick would win over his enemies. Unfortunately, it didn’t; if anything, it created new detractors.
I’ve defended the work of Bay and producer Bruckheimer many times over the years, as I think that their enemies often miss the point. Flicks like Armageddon and The Rock aren’t meant to be deep and meaningful; they’re exciting popcorn films, and I feel that they deliver what they promise. No, I don’t simply excuse their flaws, but I believe that their positives outweigh their negatives.
In regard to Pearl, however, I’m not so sure. Part of the charm of Titanic stemmed from the fact that the romantic sequences worked just as well as the disaster segments. That shocked me at the time. I saw Titanic on its second day of release, but I wasn’t excited about the prospect. I went due to my respect for director James Cameron, but I doubted even he could create an entertaining three-hour-plus flick based on the events.
I was wrong, as I liked the soap opera scenes in Titanic just as much as I enjoyed the dramatic bits. That definitely wasn’t the case for Pearl, however, as I found myself impatiently waiting for the bombs to fall. Both Pearl and Titanic had tough paths in front of them, for we know exactly what will happen and we also know when it’ll occur. We have some question about how the events will affect our fictional characters, but the flicks still go down an inevitable road to a large degree.
For Titanic, Cameron made that trail interesting and compelling. For Pearl, Bay was largely unable to do the same.
One of the major missteps found in Pearl revolves around its ending. No, I don’t mean the resolution of the love triangle, though it seems pretty lame itself. Instead, I refer to the inclusion of the Doolittle raid material. These elements feel tacked on so the story can have a happy ending. They greatly overstate the effectiveness and usefulness of the attack, and seem to exist just to send audiences out of the theater on a high note.
Personally, I don’t go to see a movie about Pearl Harbor and expect a bright and cheery finale. Actually, this era represents a change from the Titanic template, since that film ended in a fairly depressing manner. In a way, Pearl tried to have its cake and eat it too; the Doolittle raid represented a way to show a victorious US, but the film didn’t go all-out with smiles and frivolity.
In any case, I really could have lived without the Doolittle material. It seemed gratuitous and unnecessary. It wrapped up some love triangle loose ends, but I’m sure Bay could have found other ways to do this. Ultimately these scenes simply contribute to the film’s excessive length.
As a whole, the acting of Pearl seemed fairly bland. Hartnett and Beckinsale were attractive, and I think they’ve shown talent elsewhere, but they seemed fairly blah here. As for Affleck, he gave Rafe an odd Elvis vibe much of the time, at least during early scenes, and that threw me off; it was a weird choice for the character, even if he was supposed to be a Southern boy. (Hartnett didn’t bother with any sort of accent for Danny, however.)
Probably the most disconcerting piece of casting was that for President Roosevelt. Bizarrely, they chose Jon Voight, and his bug-eyed intensity felt all wrong for the part. However, I can’t blame the actor for the film’s worst scene, in which the handicapped president rose to his feet to make a point. Even if the rest of Pearl had been flawless, that terrible segment would have represented a serious blotch.
Despite all of these concerns, Bay showed such flair with the action sequences that I could almost forgive them. Make no mistake - he created some vivid and memorable visuals during the attack. As dull as the first 90 minutes was, the subsequent half hour largely compensated.
Some folks have complained that the Japanese assault was presented in too clean and antiseptic a manner. They seem to feel that if a movie doesn’t go for the gore of Saving Private Ryan, then it must be unrealistic.
That’s hogwash. No, Pearl didn’t indulge in flying body parts, but it didn’t need to do so. I guess we’ll find out how much blood Bay wanted when we get his “director’s cut” in May 2002, but I thought the relative lack of graphic human damage in Pearl didn’t harm the film whatsoever. The attack remained visceral and convincing even without those elements.
If you want to see a movie that didn’t communicate the impact of the attack, check out 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! While that flick featured an admirable restraint and emphasis on facts, it utterly failed to portray the devastation of the bombings. I left the film with little sense that anyone had died.
The same concerns didn’t arise during Pearl, which I thought did a terrific job with the battle. It gave a clear sense of the chaos and confusion and all of the destruction the fight wrought. Would additional gore have made it more effective? I doubt it. I thought the movie struck a good balance, as it demonstrated the negatives but didn’t get hung up on the graphic qualities.
Were these sequences good enough to make Pearl Harbor worth my while? Yeah, I think so. I didn’t much care for the plastic love story, it played fast and loose with a number of historical areas, and the extended ending felt unnecessary, but I felt the attack itself merited the price of admission. Pearl Harbor certainly wasn’t a classic, but it did enough right to be a watchable piece.
Pearl Harbor appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on these single-sided, dual-layered DVDs; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The first DVD included about the first 129 minutes of the film, right up until Roosevelt’s famous “infamy” speech; as such, DVD Two featured the final 54 minutes, most of which encapsulated the Doolittle raid. One expects a recent, high profile film like Pearl to look good, and one would expect correctly.
Sharpness seemed consistently excellent. A few scenes were intentionally soft, with the shots during the attack that took place at the hospital highlighting this technique; those scenes used a very blurry look to accentuate the mood. Otherwise, the movie was very detailed and well defined. I saw virtually no examples of jagged edges or moiré effects, and I also detected no signs of edge enhancement. Print flaws seemed similarly absent; I never witnessed any grain, speckles, grit, marks, debris or issues of any sort during this clean and fresh presentation.
Bay imbued Pearl with a warm and romantic glow for the most part; even during some of the more frantic attack scenes, the movie generally presented this kind of tone. In any case, the colors looked quite solid, as they consistently appeared concise and vivid. The hues of Pearl didn’t exactly leap out at me, but they seemed vibrant and distinct, and the DVD reproduced them with fine clarity; I saw no concerns related to noise, bleeding, or other issues. Black levels were deep and dense, while shadow detail appeared appropriately opaque but never excessively heavy. Low-light scenes really came across well, as they presented very accurate and well defined shots. Overall, Pearl Harbor provided a very solid visual experience.
Similar sentiments applied to the soundtracks of Pearl Harbor. The DVD includes both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes. For the most part, these two sounded quite similar; I’ll compare them more directly after I discuss their general qualities.
Not surprisingly, Pearl presented a very vivid and active soundfield. During quieter sequences - i.e., most of the first 90 minutes - the mixes remained reasonably subdued. However, they still offered a lot of involving and convincing ambience. Even when the tracks lacked any slam-bang effects, the audio showed good atmospheric aspects. Those segments weren’t totally devoid of any engulfing sound, by the way; for example, when trains rolled in and out of stations, the tracks presented them with excellent spatial characteristics and definition. In addition, Hans Zimmer’s score showed nice stereo presence and separation and filled the setting well.
Of course, the audio really came to life during the action scenes, and the entire attack sequence came across like one long demo piece. All five channels got a very active workout, as effects burst out of every possible area. Planes flew by, bullets zipped past, and explosions rocked the room. The mixes really brought a great sense of presence and dimensionality to these scenes, and the overall effect offered a fine environment.
Audio quality also appeared excellent. Dialogue remained natural and distinct at all times, and I observed no edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music seemed nicely bright and vivid, and the score offered fine fidelity and dynamics. The drumming that accompanied the shots with the Japanese sounded especially vibrant and forceful, but all of the music worked well.
The effects had a life of their own. Those elements showed fine range and accuracy at all times. No matter how loud the situation became, I always thought the effects stayed crisp and free from distortion. Highs appeared clear and bright, while bass response was devastating at times. Low-end consistently remained deep and rich, and I thought bass was also very concise. Those elements really shook the room, but they seemed quite tight and lacked any boominess.
For the most part, the two mixes sounded a lot alike, but I thought the DTS track appeared moderately stronger. As good as the Dolby version was, the DTS one improved upon it with stronger bass and a better defined spatial presence. The differences were small but noticeable; I simply thought the DTS presentation packed a better bunch and was somewhat more convincing. I didn’t feel the variations were substantial enough to give each mix its own letter grade, but consider the DTS edition as an “A” that’s almost an “A+”, while the DD track gets an “A” that borders on an “A-“. In any case, both were terrific; had I never heard the DTS version, I doubt I’d have any complaints whatsoever about the Dolby track.
One unusual audio feature found on Pearl Harbor is a “Dolby Headphone Soundtrack”. Apparently a number of DVD-ROM players - like the newest versions of PowerDVD and WinDVD - use this method to translate any standard 5.1 track into a faux multi-channel piece for headphones. The version on Pearl will work with any DVD player, though, and it exists mainly as a sort of demo for the system.
I didn’t screen the whole movie with the headphone track activated, but I went through parts of the attack sequence. So how does it sound? Let’s just say that I won’t sell my full surround system any time soon. My headphones are some decent Sennheisers; they aren’t top of the line, but they’ve served me well. I found the Headphone track to provide a smidgen more breadth and scope to the events, but it wasn’t enough to seem like a revelation.
Really, the entire presentation came across as little more than a fairly good stereo mix. I like the idea of this feature, but I didn’t find the result to be anything special. However, at least the DVD includes a special “Dolby Headphone” trailer you can see if you access the mix!
Pearl Harbor doesn’t pack as many extras as one might expect from this kind of blockbuster film, but that issue will be resolved in the not-too-distant future. This “60th Anniversary Commemorative Edition” is only one of three eventual versions of Pearl, and it’s the skimpiest of the bunch when it comes to extras. I’ll detail the differences later in the review. For now, I’ll just cover what we do find on Pearl.
Virtually all of the extras appear on DVD Two. There we find two different documentaries. Entitled Journey to the Screen: the Making of Pearl Harbor, the first lasts for 47 minutes and 25 second as it covers the creation of the film itself. The program combines the standard array of movie clips, shots from the set, and interview snippets. In regard to the latter, we hear from a long list of folks. In addition to film participants such as director Michael Bay, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, actors Ben Affleck, Cuba Gooding, Kate Beckinsale, Jon Voight, Alec Baldwin, and Josh Hartnett, Department of Defense Project Officer Lt. Melissa Shuermann, DOD Public Affairs Phil Strub, writer Randall Wallace, costume designer Michael Kaplan, special effects coordinator John Frazier, stunt coordinator Kenny Bates, aerial coordinator Alan Purwin, chief pilot Steve Hinton, property master Charles Stewart, director of photography John Schwartzman, first assistant director K.C. Hodenfield, second unit director/visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig, co-visual effects supervisor Ed Hirsh, and associate visual effects supervisor Ben Snow, we also get comments from veterans Don Jones, James Bunting, Robert Vilcone, Gene Byers, John Russak, Peter Janovich, Charles Tompkins, Archie Boek, Loyd Scott, Van Harrison, Edmond Chappell, William Davis, Richard Duran, Richard Fiske, Karl Johnson, Rik Richards, Hank Potter, Dick Cole, and Robert Kronberg. Wow - that’s a lot of folks to pack into a 47-minute show!
For the most part, “Journey” integrates the speakers reasonably well, though don’t expect to hear much from most of them. Bay dominates the piece, but even he only adds a little to the table. Still, the large variety of voices helps bring some decent facts to bear. Though a promotional show at heart, “Journey” happily keeps the film clips to a minimum; they don’t fill too much of the program. Where the show shines relates to the “behind the scenes” snippets. These provide some nice looks at the creation of the movie and they flesh out the piece. Overall, “Journey” is a bit too fluffy and light to be much above average, but it still offers a fairly interesting look at many aspects of the production.
Originally aired as a special on the History Channel, Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor gives us a second documentary. Narrated by Fritz Weaver, this 45-minute and 20-second program combines archival films and still photos with interviews. In the latter domain, we hear from USS Arizona Memorial historian Daniel Martinez, author Paul Stillwell (Air Raid: Pearl HarborRun Silent, Run Deep) and Colonel Joseph H. Alexander (A Fellowship of Valor), and veterans Roger Thomas, Stephen B. Young, and Anthony J. Dilorenzo.
Overall, the program tends toward the melodramatic at times, but it offers a pretty good recap of the events of December 7 1941. The show stays away from a broad historical or political focus and essentially concentrates on the attack itself. In that regard, it provides a fairly thorough look at the different elements, with a special emphasis on the various ships that took hits. I especially liked the comments from the veterans; in particular, Young - a survivor of the Arizona - added a strong perspective. Ultimately, “Unsung” wasn’t an exceptional documentary, but it gave us a reasonably compelling view of its subject.
A few minor extras round out the DVD. We find a music video for Faith Hill’s There You’ll Be. This clip appears in a 2.35:1 ratio and features Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The song itself is yet another crappy Diane Warren ballad, and the video resembles many other clips that promote tunes from movies; it uses liberal film snippets and simply shows Hill as she wanders around and lip-synchs the rest of the time. Hill looks pretty good in the video, but it’s still a loser.
In addition, we get some ads. There’s a preview for National Geographic Beyond the Movie: Pearl Harbor as well as the theatrical and teaser trailers for Pearl itself. Oddly, the teaser offers Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, whereas the standard trailer provides only Dolby Surround 2.0 audio.
Pearl Harbor includes the THX Optimizer program. Also found on The Phantom Menace and Willow, this seems very similar to the THX Optimode available on other DVDs like Fight Club and The Ultimate Toy Box. It purports to help you set up your home theater to best present the movie on the disc in question. Apparently the Optimizer is unique for each DVD on which it’s included; unlike programs such as Video Essentials, the Optimizer should tweak your set-up differently every time. Frankly, I’ve been very happy with my already-established calibration and I’m afraid to muck with it, so I’ve never tried the Optimizer or the Optimode. If you lack calibration from Video Essentials or a similar program, or if you’re just more adventurous than I, the Optimizer could be a helpful addition.
Lastly, Pearl Harbor tosses in some DVD-ROM materials. The package claims that we’ll get the “Definitive Bibliography”, but what this means is that we find a bunch of links to external websites. There are 16 connections in all, which actually is a pretty good collection, I must admit. In addition, the DVD-ROM area includes a link to the movie’s official Website.
As I alluded earlier, Buena Vista have decided to complicate the lives of Pearl Harbor fans with three - count ‘em, three! - different editions of the movie on DVD. Two of these came out simultaneously in December 2001. These include the “60th Anniversary Commemorative Edition” detailed in this review as well as the “Gift Set”. The latter duplicates the “Commemorative Edition” and also includes the “definitive companion program, National Geographic Beyond the Movie: Pearl Harbor.”
In addition to that documentary, the “Gift Set” provides “three exclusive bonus programs: an actual Pearl Harbor newsreel and two historic archival films documenting some of the least known stories of the time - Japanese Relocation and The Army Nurse.” Finally, the “Gift Set” features National Geographic’s “60th Anniversary Pearl Harbor Commemorative Map”. All of this adds $20 to the list price; the DVD “Gift Set” retails for $49.99, as opposed to the $29.99 of the normal DVD.
For the record, the materials from the “Gift Set” can also be purchased separately, though it’ll cost you some extra bucks. Beyond the Movie lists for $29.99 on its own, while the map can be bought for $14.95. Since that comes to almost an extra $45, the $20 difference between the standard DVD and the “Gift Set” starts to look pretty good if the materials interest you.
However, the story doesn’t end there. On May 14 2002, we’ll get the “Vista Series” release of Pearl. This new director’s cut of the movie will come in a four-DVD set. No, that’s not a typo - this sucker’ll actually cover four DVDs! I figure the first two will include the movie itself plus the promised “multiple audio commentaries”, which the other two discs will provide the remaining supplements. The specs aren’t totally defined yet, but the press release shows that the “Vista Series” package will replicate the features found on the “60th Anniversary Commemorative Edition” along with all the other materials, and it’ll list for $39.99. (It appears it won’t include the extras from the Gift Set”, however.)
With all that as a background, I guess I should cover my recommendations. As a movie, Pearl Harbor was more enjoyable than its detractors claim, but I won’t claim much more for it than that. The battle sequences were fairly compelling and dramatic, but the romantic elements seemed uninspired and forced. Essentially Pearl’s just too darned long at three hours. I liked parts of it, but the whole felt like it dragged too much of the time. As for the DVD, it provided terrific picture and sound quality, and it also added a few good extras.
If you haven’t seen Pearl Harbor, I definitely think it’s worth a rental. A lot of folks will disagree, but I found it entertaining despite a number of flaws. For those who already like the movie and want to purchase it, the question revolves around your desire for immediate versus delayed gratification. If you have to have it now, your choice will depend on how much you enjoy supplements. Those who want lots of materials should go after the “Gift Set”. Though a little pricey, it packs a number of different components. Unfortunately, since I haven’t seen its extras, I can’t comment on them, but they sound solid.
However, for those with some patience, I’d recommend they wait for the May 2002 four-DVD release of Pearl Harbor. It sounds like it should be a terrific package, and it will be stuffed with supplements. The current DVD is a nice set, but I expect the “Vista Series” release will offer one of 2002’s strongest releases.