I liked it.
I was in a melting mood when I saw it, but still.
Director Michael Bay has an eye for a scene, give him that, and I don't mean special effects. There is real movie-making here, wondrous, beautiful scenes, an artist at work, and like every artist, he had a little trouble letting some of it go after it had been done. Parts of the film didn't need to be there, and that's really the flaw here (one that is shared with writer Randall Wallace's other opus, Braveheart). The parts that were needed for the story were choreographed and performed with life and humour (whoops, there's that 'u' again...damn Canadians, eh?). But the story begins to go down a delta of many paths that lead it away from being a really engaging story. Cuba Gooding Jr., great actor that he is, could have been given only a hundred seconds of on-screen time without taking anything away from the contribution made by black sailors. The story of a cook/ship's boxer winning a medal for waxing a Zero from behind a dual-.50s was one of several plot lines that could have easily been pared away to its
essentials, or shown as poignant cameos. Besides, the real Dorie Miller was a rather more gruff character than portrayed in the movie.
In some ways the film couldn't make up it's mind what it wanted to be. Was it a personal tale of two pilots (Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett) and a nurse (Kate Beckinsale, barbie-like and looking really yummy), with various hangers on attached? Or was it an historical epic, full of the important characters of the day to say all the famous words? The first was almost done well, the second wasn't at all, and both suffered from being in the same movie together. Jon Voight's Roosevelt interpretations were embarrassing, and would not have been missed. Any scene (excepting one) with Japanese faces in it could have gone, and one gets the impression it would have been a drag to be a Japanese sailor or soldier or officer of any kind since this involved standing at attention all the time while really stiff old guys talked about sleeping giants. (Oh yeah, they got to wave their hats once, almost forgot that). By contrast, in the classic "Tora, Tora, Tora, we got to see the youthful energy and humanity of the Japanese side as they prepared for battle. I won't go into the "too much patriotic American stuff" area. Let's just say that another six to eight minutes of preachifying fluff could have been removed from an overly long film.
I'll try not to get too picky. I hate critics who get picky. The film worked on some levels. I liked the characters. Affleck is his usual warm self and shows a little toughness, too, but that can't be faked easily in an actor. He's still a bit of a pretty boy. The early romance scenes with Beckinsale are really quite good, and a few laughs keep it all from getting too icky. Affleck and Hartnett are a good pair, and their characters could have been given more development. Hartnett convincingly played the uncertain sidekick coming of age with class, and the love triangle that begins when Affleck is declared missing in action is acted with grace and realism by Hartnett and Beckinsale. I didn't buy the physical love thing in the aircraft hangar, though, and it was unnecessary anyway. No decent 1940's era American female would have been caught dead with skirt up and no locked door, though drying parachutes hung like wind blown silk curtains made the whole thing ethereal. More film for the cutting room floor (I really sound like I know something about movie-making, don't I?). There were other intrusions of 90's sensibilities. One pilot is depicted as a video nut, compulsively filming everything in the attack with a wind-up Kodak, and no one bothers to tell him to throw away the damn camera. Nobody (and I mean nobody) smoked.
I know, I know, getting picky.
The aerial scenes were first rate. I've never seen fighter combat portrayed well in film until now. Somebody did their homework, and combined it with film making craft of the best calibre (Canadian spelling...this joke is getting old). All the aircraft look real. Japanese Kate dive bombers, Val torpedo bombers, and the infamous Zero all looked authentic (except that these aircraft were painted gray at this time, not green), as did the American P-40 Tomahawks. More importantly, the dogfights and strafing scenes carried something of the force and power that they must have had in reality. Damage on aircraft was graphically shown., and marksmanship was considered important enough to dwell on....there is a truly great scene for an enthusiast of this sort of thing, where Hartnett walks his arcing tracers through the curve of a turn and into an enemy fighter. Some things were a little wonky. The Zeroes had infinite amounts of ammunition. Hartnett's P-40 manages to elude one for many, many long seconds of screen time with seemingly little maneuvering, marksmanship not to be expected from men fresh from downing loads of Chinese aircraft as many of the Japanese carrier fleet fighter pilots had done. (The P-40 action was based on historical fact, two U.S. pilots did get their P-40s into the air and downed seven Japanese aircraft.) Cockpit talk rang with an authentic tone, and it all sounded right. They even had some forties slang going. But the portable walkie-talkie prominently used in the movie did not reach the troops until 1943, and the version that could talk to aircraft was classified secret (and not unclassified until 1976.)
Strange though, I never knew the December 7th battle was actually a tie. Was it just me, or did it seem that overall on-screen time for destruction of Japanese lives and property was pretty near that for American?
People with absolutely no life will catch the Star Wars allusions; "Red 2" is the call sign for an American Eagle Squadron pilot during Affleck's days in England. Beckinsale waits Princess Leia-like outside the Hawaii control room of the Doolittle Raid, waiting for word of the safety of her heroes as they approach the Tokyo suburbs. The Japanese look as martinet as the Empire's Storm Troopers, and their headquarters had the same perfectly stark Death Star look. I laughed out loud at the maps, big cartoonish things with huge arrows glued on and names like WAKE and MIDWAY printed in big bold letters as if the generals and admirals were all idiots or drunks who couldn't figure it out and their staffs were trying to baby talk them.
Yeah, the 1100 lb. bomb scene into the Arizona was good, but you've all seen that in the trailers, so why talk about it? Great expense was involved in making the capsizing ships look as real as they did. I got the shivers, watching men cling to chains and rails along the side. Beckinsale did the best acting of the film as her character is forced to do triage on wounded pouring into her hospital, writing letters in lipstick on foreheads to sort men for medical help, condemning dying men to morphine and nothing else with a red 'F'. But even here, there were avoidable historical lapses. Navy nurses did not become officers until 1942. That wasn't the only error of timing. The opening scene, set in 1923, shows a Stearman biplane that did not appear until the 1930s. The Model A Ford in that scene did not appear until 1929. Even the uniforms, which generally were quite accurate, had some silly lapses. The Sam Browne belt worn by the Army officers had been abandoned in 1937 because they could not be worn under a parachute harness. Also, in some long shots of ships at sea, you can clearly make out modern warships. Other liberties were taken as well. Admiral Kimmel was not at the golf course when the attack began, he was just getting out of bed. The spectacular attack scenes were marred by several avoidable errors. For example, warships used a bugler to announce general quarters, none were heard in the movie. When the Oklahoma capsizes, it shows four screws, when it actually only had two. The movie shows the Arizona going down after the Oklahoma, when in reality it was just the opposite. One scene shows a tripod mast coming down, but no U.S. ships had this feature in 1941. The Doolittle attack scene shows the B-25s taking off from a carrier with an angled flight deck. Such a feature did not exist in 1941 either.
In the end, it was too much end. The film goes on well past the December 7th attack, and into the Doolittle raid, and I see little point to this decision except a need to show America striking the last blow. The climax of characters and plot could all have been done effectively on and over Oahu. As it is, there is a confusing mixture of emotions for the audience. Where we should be feeling the release of resolution, we are instead forced to gear up for a new adventure, and there is too-pressing a need to tie in all the loose ends created by a bulky number of supporting characters.
My favourite part of the picture (and my last 'u')? A rear gunner in a low flying Japanese plane waving the 'get down' signal to kids playing baseball near the Battleship Row on the approach run. Yeah, it's a little PC, showing the other guys having a human side, but it actually happened, another of the little details the director went out of his way to include.. Go to the film. Don't drink coffee before you go, but if you do, there are some parts where you can step out for a pee.
Be quick, though. There are good parts you could miss.