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War As Video Game

In the whiz-bang Pearl Harbor, vintage history takes a back seat to a dated love triangle.

Measured by its screaming dive-bombers, multiple-explosion mayhem and flaming carnage, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Pearl Harbor is just the kind of eye-popping, ear-splitting blockbuster the summer movie throngs crave. Here is Hollywood bombast -- $140 million worth -- at its most shameless pitch and in its most glorious profusion. Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay, the same team that brought us quaint drawing-room comedies like The Rock and Armageddon, have once more pulled out all the stops to overwhelm audiences with high-octane action. And because they hope to lure every available soul into the tent, they've also stuffed their behemoth full of old-fashioned romance -- in the form of a highly conventional (and nobly resolved) love triangle linking two dashing, best-friend flyboys (Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett) and a dewy volunteer nurse (Kate Beckinsale).

As a result, the Japanese sneak attack at Pearl Harbor that catapulted the United States into World War II is an afterthought here -- just as the disaster that befell a great ocean liner was an afterthought in Titanic. If you want a plain dose of war history, go to Blockbuster for a tape of 1970's Tora! Tora! Tora!, the lumbering Pearl Harbor epic in which no military thought -- Japanese or American -- is left unthunk. If you want an homage to the Greatest Generation, have another look at Saving Private Ryan. Because Pearl Harbor is not about history or politics, national morality or even courage. It's about physical sensation, pure and simple. The physical sensation of its three protagonists -- and the audience's. Here's a critic-proof monument to booming technical excess, tightly wrapped around a love story -- and not one eager popcorn-muncher in a hundred is likely to care that in three hours and three minutes, it has exactly nothing to say about war and peace.

For one thing, we're too busy absorbing -- or fending off -- a relentless assault of movie salesmanship in which the glamorized young stars alternately copulate on billows of parachute silk in an airplane hangar and try to save the world, and in which Bay rolls out his customary endless supply of special effects. The movie's hour-long invasion sequence -- the main reason most people will buy a ticket -- is noisily impressive, but its relentless swarms of fighter planes and its scenically exploding battleships remind you less of the horror and pity of war than they do the synthetic intensity of a giant video game. Little wonder. Bay's squadrons of Zeroes, whizzing torpedoes and much of the rest are video games -- not actual hardware at all, but digitized images conjured up in the labs at George Lucas's Industrial Light + Magic. It's dazzling fakery, but fakery nonetheless: Star Wars beamed back to 1941 Hawaii. What actual Pearl Harbor survivors may have to say about this cartoonish sleight of hand will be far more interesting than the commentary of the hormone-crazed teenagers at whom the movie is aimed.

Meanwhile, Bruckheimer and screenwriter Randall Wallace (Braveheart) can't help indulging in a little redemptive flag-waving. Pearl Harbor ends not with the Pacific Fleet devastated at anchor and an aroused nation girding for war, but with the daring (and suicidal) 1942 bombing raid on Tokyo led by Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin). We may have lost the battle, the moviemakers insist on telling us all over again, but not the war. Affleck's Rafe McCawley and Hartnett's Danny Walker, who've earlier managed to get their P-40s aloft at Pearl and shoot down seven Japanese planes, also wind up over Tokyo together, exacting more revenge. Had Bruckheimer and Wallace extended their brand of dramatic logic one more step, they might have dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima in their denouement -- or maybe speared a Japanese fishing boat with an American nuclear submarine.

This big, loud movie's best moments, I think, are small, carefully detailed ones: officers and nurses jitterbugging in a New York nightclub, soldiers donating blood into Coke bottles in the frenzied aftermath of the attack, a pair of worried Pentagon aides scurrying down a polished hallway. Otherwise, writer Wallace's script is a kind of paint-by-numbers kit. The dialogue spouted in Pearl Harbor by the two male leads and Beckinsale's Evelyn Johnson is so pat and predictable, so old-movie virtuous, that it, too, sounds like it came out of a computer. "I'm not anxious to die," good old Rafe declares, "just anxious to matter." "If I had one more night to live," Evelyn intones, "I'd want to spend it with you." Wallace's Blab-o-Matic method extends to the battlefield, too: "I'm so cold," a dying man tells us, just as in fifty previous war movies. "Look at the man next to you," Doolittle says. "In six weeks..." Well, we know the rest.

As far as physical eloquence goes, the image of Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster writhing in the moonlit surf in From Here to Eternity still outranks any minor indulgences of the flesh you'll see here. For good measure, though, director Bay and writer Wallace manage to alter -- for the worse -- our sense of real personages. When President Roosevelt, in the person of Jon Voight, delivers his stirring Day of Infamy speech, you don't think of FDR, you think of, say, Charlton Heston impersonating Moses. When the president rises from his wheelchair to inspire confidence in the joint chiefs of staff, he's no longer Roosevelt but Lazarus, straight out of Cecil B. DeMille. In other words, this is not just a movie; it's the movie to end all movies, the charge that blows all previous ships out of the water.

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