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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Pearl Harbor is a three-hour Michael Bay war movie about the surprise attack that led to America's entrance into World War II. The movie features extended and intense battle violence with thousands of casualties, including characters we care about. Soldiers use profanity ("son of a bitch," "bulls--t," "t-tties," "damn") and joke about seduction techniques. A couple decides not to have sex because they don't want to have any regrets. Another couple does have sex, and the woman becomes pregnant. There is some drinking and drunkenness. Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays a real-life hero of World War II, the first black man to win the Navy Cross. It's worth mentioning that the movie attempts to show Japan not just as "the enemy," but also as soldiers and leaders who had families and loved ones who were somewhat ambivalent about launching the attack. In one scene, an injured American soldier yells that he doesn't want to be treated by a "Jap" -- his prejudice the smallest hint of the Japanese-American internment camps that, for all the heroism and sacrifice in so many other ways, would be one of the most shameful aspects of American involvement in World War II.
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What's the story?
PEARL HARBOR begins as America is sending equipment and supplies to Europe, but has not yet entered World War II. Friends Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) are army pilots. Anxious to get some action, Rafe volunteers to go to England, where he can join an American division of the RAF. Before he leaves, he meets a pretty nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), and they fall in love. He leaves for England, and Danny and Evelyn are assigned half a world away, to the Naval Station at Pearl Harbor. When Rafe is reported killed, Evelyn and Danny are devastated. They comfort each other, and become involved. Rafe arrives to find them together, just before the Japanese attack. That attack, lasting just about as long on-screen as it did in reality, is devastating to the unprepared Naval Station and to a country that thought it could stay out of the war. But Rafe and Danny train for a counterattack on Tokyo to send Japan a message that America can and will punish those who attack the U.S.
Is it any good?
Director Michael Bay has visual flair and superb command of action sequences. Dan Ackroyd is fine as an intelligence officer and Jon Voight shows us FDR's compassion, political skill, and intelligence. Affleck, Hartnett, and Beckinsale look gorgeous and do their best to give some depth to the cardboard characters, but they cannot overcome a soapy plot and dialogue that is often wooden and sometimes wildly anachronistic. Pearl Harbor fails to provide any sense of the reason for the conflict, and it bends over backward to be fair to the Japanese, portraying them as brave and loyal. But it is also dismayingly U.S.-centric, showing (inaccurately) both the English and the Japanese in awe of American spirit and strength.
But both the love story and the war story here have a synthetic feel to them that doesn't permit us to care enough. Like Titanic, Pearl Harbor ties a love story to a catastrophe, with the theory that if it can make us care, make us gasp, and make us cry, they'll have a box-office bonanza. It's worth seeing -- but only once.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the events that led to World War II and about some of the real-life characters who are depicted. Make sure that they know that in 1941, the armed services were segregated. Dorie Miller, like most other black soldiers, was not trained to fight and was assigned to cooking and menial jobs.
Michael Bay movies tend to have a similar style. How is Pearl Harbor a good example of this?
Movie critics were brutal in their reviews of Pearl Harbor, criticizing aspects like the dialogue, the love triangle, and the never-still camera shots. What do you think? Are movie critics given too much credit from audiences as well as the movie studios, who use the critics' positive reviews of their movies to help market them on movie posters and DVD cases?
- In theaters: May 25, 2001
- On DVD or streaming: December 4, 2001
- Cast: Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale
- Director: Michael Bay
- Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Character Strengths: Courage
- Run time: 183 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: sustained intense war sequences, images of wounded, brief sensuality and some language
- Last updated: September 21, 2019
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