Pearl Harbor: 60th Anniversary Commemorative Edition on DVD
Director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer's Pearl Harbor was probably destined from the start to take critical flak. Well known for "blowing things up real good" in a string of purely fictional and very successful action films (Armageddon, The Rock, etc), the filmmakers were taken to the woodshed for applying those same talents to a serious historical event. The fact that re-creating the Pearl Harbor attack requires that stuff be blown up real good didn't matter a whit to many critics.
The subject is certainly an open invitation to make an action extravaganza, and no doubt the hoped-for result was a successful "event" film. But it's also apparent that Bay and Bruckheimer wanted something much more than that. In hiring screenwriter Randall Wallace (Braveheart), they clearly sought to make Pearl Harbor a classic.
It's something less than that, however, due primarily to choices made in the script. Through its entire first half, the plot revolves around a developing love triangle involving two childhood pals, Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), who grow up to become army aviators, and the girl with whom they both fall in love. The romance first develops between Rafe and army nurse Evelyn Stewart (Kate Beckinsale). When Rafe goes off to fly with the RAF in the fight against the Nazis—it's 1940 and America is still at peace—Danny and Evelyn find themselves stationed in Hawaii. When Rafe is reported killed in action, their grief eventually turns to passion for each other.
This is all a perfectly legitimate dramatic lead-in to the centerpiece action, but it simply takes too long. I have no problem with character development, and action films are invariably derided for ignoring it. But we do want more exposition, more background concerning the attack itself—not, perhaps, as much as in the excellent but rather emotionless Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), but a little more depth would have improved Pearl Harbor immensely.
The near-hour-long treatment of Jimmy Doolittle's (Alec Baldwin) raid on Tokyo that forms the extended epilogue was obviously intended to keep the film from ending on a downbeat, but it, too, goes on far too long. By the time we get to it, Pearl Harbor is already in its third hour, we're worn down, and it feels anticlimactic. But DVD provides a degree of flexibility that theaters do not; watching the epilogue by itself made me appreciate how superbly choreographed, shot, and edited it is—it's possibly the most exciting part of the film. Judged by itself, it's impressive. Linked to the rest of Pearl Harbor, it feels as if it belongs in another movie.
A number of smaller details also bother me, but I won't dwell on them here. Suffice it to say that while a tighter script would have vastly improved Pearl Harbor, once we get to the heart of the film—the attack itself—you'll see the most amazing 40 minutes you're likely to experience in a movie this year. Tora! Tora! Tora! did an excellent job of simulating the attack, but had to do it entirely with live action and miniatures. Pearl Harbor also makes extensive use of live effects, but also employs state-of-the-art CGI, which provides an even more gripping level of realism.
The video transfer to DVD is top notch, with crisp detail and only occasional edge enhancement. Colors are rich and noise-free. Unless you saw the film in a first-run theater with a premier-quality print, it's unlikely you'll ever see it looking better than this, short of some future, high-def version.
Given the subject matter, you expect spectacular sound, and you won't be disappointed, whether you listen to the Dolby Digital or the DTS soundtrack. The surrounds are highly active, the bass is deep and room-shaking, the dialogue is clear, and Hans Zimmer's score is cleanly recorded. There's even a Dolby Headphone track, designed to provide a surround experience through headphones. I wasn't set up to listen to it, but it's the first time we've seen this feature.
The film itself spills over onto disc 2, with an intermission right after the attack, though there was no intermission in the theatrical release. The extras are not overly elaborate when compared with other recent special-edition DVDs, but they're excellent nonetheless. There are two documentaries that were made for TV: a "Making of" feature and The Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor, the latter originally produced for the History Channel. Each is more than 40 minutes long, and superbly done. Also included are trailers, DVD-ROM features, and a Faith Hill music video of the song that runs over the end titles.
In addition to the set reviewed here, there is also a 60th Anniversary Commemorative Gift Set ($49.99), which includes an additional documentary, National Geographic Beyond the Movie: Pearl Harbor, plus a commemorative map. Also in the pipeline is a Vista Series edition, expected in May (originally scheduled for January but delayed). This four-disc set ($39.99) will include the director's cut of the film (reportedly rated R), all the features of the 60th Anniversary Commemorative Edition, plus commentaries from the filmmakers, including director Michael Bay. Unless you absolutely must have the movie now, that's the one I'd buy.
The experience of anyone viewing Pearl Harbor after September 11, 2001 will be far different from that of someone who saw it before that date. Despite the reservations some of us have about its narrative flow, the film is far more relevant now than when first released. The epilogue contains two short speeches by Jimmy Doolittle on the deck of the carrier shortly before the bombers take off on the Tokyo raid. They are typical of the flag-waving heart of Pearl Harbor—a characteristic that upset many critics and, I suspect, prompted snickers in more than a few theaters last May. Those lines now have a genuine resonance, and I don't think anyone's laughing.