Yes, it's shameless. Yes, it's packed with stupefyingly bad lines like "You know, Jack, we may lose this battle, but we're gonna win this war" (Alec Baldwin as Col. Jimmy Doolittle). Yes, you would be overstating the case to call its stick figures human beings. Yes, it has a punchline you can see coming three thousand miles away. But - maybe because I lived through World War II - I found myself in tears for most of the last hour, and so might you.
Two Tennessee boys, Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett), in love with airplanes in the 1920s, grow up to join the Army Air Corps in 1940. Rafe falls in love with Army nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) but then goes off to fight the Nazis in the British Air Force. He's shot down and presumed dead - though not by any sentient being watching the film, since when was the last time you saw the lead killed off 45 minutes into the movie? However, and not to get ahead of the story, Danny and Evelyn, now stationed in Honolulu, fall into each other's arms just when, uh-oh, here comes Rafe again.
But so does the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor - a truly amazing piece of film shooting, editing, and matching of live action with computer graphics, by director Michael Bay. Among many other examples of verisimilitude he is able to show us the sparks left by bullets striking metal, in apparent real time. He gives us both large-scale moments - the Japanese planes flying low through the Oahu valleys; the famous POV shot you'll recall from the film's trailer, of a bomb heading for a ship; the Arizona slowly turning upside down with more than a thousand men trapped inside - and the closeups of nurses frantically trying to save the wounded, including a powerful moment in which Beckinsale must perform triage on the wounded lying outside the hospital, selecting out those who will die in any case. She gently marks their foreheads with lipstick, murmuring kind words as she does it.
In fact Beckinsale is the closest thing to a real person in the film. As an actress she is good enough to give us more than just her lines. We see mixed emotions, internal conflict, ambiguity. We see her thoughts and her dicisions. Affleck, more limited, is still in his element here - the leader, the driven one, the brilliant pilot, but also the eternal adolescent. Hartnett, playing a barely written role as the wimp, the follower, the sidekick, the best friend, cannot surmount the banality of the script by that king of clichés Randall Wallace ("Braveheart").
Nevertheless Bay is a master of kinetic filmmaking, and his shots and editing (there was plenty of work for the four editors credited) are beautifully crafted. And the lighting, by director of photography John Schwartzman, is brilliant both in daylight and at night. There are small roles for Jon Voight as a strangely thick-necked Franklin Roosevelt, for Dan Aykroyd as an intelligence officer whose warnings are not heeded, and among others the model James King as Nurse Betty and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a black naval messman who becomes the first African-American to receive the Navy Cross.
The film cuts early on to the Japanese planning for the raid, with a reluctant Admiral Yamamoto in charge; and after Pearl Harbor it concludes with the preparations for Doolittle's bombing raid on Tokyo - which both boys, naturally, fly in - and the aftermath of that raid. As I said, you'll see it coming, but no matter. It still works.