Retrospective Review: Pearl Harbor

Retrospective Review: Pearl Harbor

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt


It is the 75th anniversary of a day that changed the course of the 20th Century. On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan launched a surprise aerial attack on the United States Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii. It propelled an isolationist United States to enter the Second World War. America could no longer depend on its oceans and distance to shield it from the horrors of the war. It could no longer turn a blind eye to the evil and tyranny of fascism in the world. On December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a legendary, rousing speech that united the American people and inspired them to “absolute victory”. As we know, the untapped industrial potential of the country was eventually realized. More importantly, the unrelenting will and determination of the American people spurred the Allied Forces to victory against the Axis Powers. America’s destiny forever changed during World War II. It became a superpower and an integral part of shaping the world in the second half of the 20th Century. For all these reasons, the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor is bittersweet. It is a somber reminder of the brutality and “onslaught” inflicted on our military forces 75 years ago as we honor the young lives, full of potential, lost on that day. On the other hand, it is also an uplifting reminder of the incredible feats the nation was and is still capable of when it is united for a greater purpose.

A polarizing film about that fateful day is Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001). It has all the ingredients to make a great movie. Like most of Bay’s films, the special effects and stunts are amazing. During the action sequences, the audience can really feel like it is in the battle. The music is also top notch. Hans Zimmer is one of my favorite composers whose work includes The Lion King, Gladiator, The Last Samurai, and Christopher Nolan films such as The Dark Knight trilogy. His score for Pearl Harbor is absolutely beautiful and flawlessly captures every emotion intended for each scene. Faith Hill’s song “There You’ll Be” became an international hit. In addition to the special effects and music, Pearl Harbor also features a talented group of actors. Ben Affleck stars as hotshot pilot Rafe McCawley. In my opinion, he was terrible as a young actor but has drastically improved and mastered his craft as his career has progressed. The film also launches the careers of some brilliant young actors at the time: Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett, and Jennifer Garner. It is impossible to ignore Beckinsale’s beauty as she plays Rafe’s love interest, nurse/ Lieutenant Evelyn Johnson. Hartnett portrays Rafe’s childhood best friend and wingman, Danny Walker. In terms of Hartnett, I really enjoyed some of his roles after Pearl Harbor. He looked like a young Harrison Ford at the time. It is disappointing that his career has not been grander. Jennifer Garner has a supporting role in the film as a fellow nurse and friend of Evelyn. The cast also includes established actors at the time: Cuba Gooding Jr., Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, and Alec Baldwin. Cuba Gooding Jr. portrays Petty Office Dorie Miller, who was the first African American awarded the Navy Cross for his valor during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Voight and Baldwin portray high profile individuals, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. Sizemore’s presence in a war film is always a plus since he is a professional badass (e.g. Saving Private Ryan). Other notable actors who show up in the cast are Dan Akroyd, Michael Shannon, and Jaime King among others. Unfortunately, all this acting talent is squandered by a substandard screenplay and story. It is reflective of the criticism that has followed Michael Bay throughout his career: great and often stunning special effects and action scenes contrasted by generally panned scripts. In Roger Ebert’s movie review of Transformers, he makes reference to the perfect quote from fans that describe Bay’s career: “”We are so sorry, Michael Bay, you still suck but we love you.”


One of the most interesting debates sparked by Pearl Harbor is the acceptable balance between artistic license and historical accuracy when making a film about historical events. Of course, Pearl Harbor is heavily criticized for its historical inaccuracies. Instead of featuring main characters who were real people, Bay and Producer Jerry Bruckheimer opt to create original, fictional characters who experience bits and various pieces of actual stories lived by real people. For example, Ben Affleck’s Rafe McCawley is a made up fighter pilot in the United States military. In the first act of the movie, he volunteers for the Eagle Squadron which was the three fighter squadrons of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) formed with volunteer pilots from the United States. In reality, members of the US military were prohibited from joining the Squadron. However, civilians did not face the same restriction. Consequently, American civilians, not servicemen, volunteered to fight with the British before the United States officially entered the war. In addition, those pilots suffered a high casualty rate in defense of Britain so their sacrifices and courage during the war should not be overlooked. For the purposes of the movie, Bay and Bruckheimer intentionally ignore historical accuracy and place Rafe in the Squadron to highlight the bravery of the real men who volunteered for it. Another example of assigning a piece of actual events to fictional characters is the incorporation of the story of U.S. Army Air Forces Second Lieutenants George Welch and Kenneth M. Taylor. During the attack, the two heroes were one of the few pilots who got their P-40 planes into the air. More impressively, they shot down six enemy aircraft. Instead of including them as characters in the film, their feats are reenacted by Rafe and his wingman and best friend, Danny Walker. By having fictional characters as the embodiment of many stories, it allows the film to pay tribute to more stories. Of course, the real individuals who lived and persevered through those times would get their proper due if they were characters portrayed in the film. From my perspective, these type of deliberate decisions are within the purview of acceptable artistic license.

Of course, movies also alter the sequence of events or the event itself to create more drama. I see it a lot in a sport films. In real life, most games do not come down to the final seconds. There are plenty of great victories when the winners are up by a significant amount in a game and either running out the clock (e.g. basketball or football) or shooting free throws (basketball) as the losing team desperately tries to foul in hopes of a miracle where the free throws are missed and they hit a number of miracle shots. In almost every one of these situations, the trailing team does not come close to a comeback and the end of the game is pretty boring. As a result, Hollywood tends to change the journey, but usually not the outcome, to have games come down to the last play or final seconds to generate more excitement for the purposes of entertainment. An example is the ending for Remember the Titans. The movie ends with an exhilarating game winning scoring drive. In actuality, the Titans were a dominant team and won all their games handily. Unfortunately, there is often a direct relationship between being 100% accuracy and boring. An example in Pearl Harbor is when Admiral Husband E. Kimmel receives a message of a Japanese midget submarine being spotted and sunk outside the harbor before the Japanese attack. In reality, he received the message after the attack. As such, it was already too late. Nevertheless, there were other actual missed signs that would have given Kimmel and his forces some advanced notice so they could begin to mobilize and mount a defense. By changing the sequence of when Kimmel receives the message, it adds drama to the military and Kimmel trying to figure out what is going on before it is too late. Of course, it is still counted as a historical inaccuracy. In my opinion, it also falls under the umbrella of reasonable artistic license if done intentionally. Nevertheless, some historical inaccuracies are just errors. When Rafe is in the Eagle Squadron, his Spitfire aircraft’s insignia is “RF” and wrong. The RF is an insignia of No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron, which was another squadron in the RAF during the war. However, these type of errors with historical fine details occur all the time during the film making process. Objectively and retrospectively, Pearl Harbor is not egregiously historically inaccurate when I review the issues I have seen listed by various sources. In comparison to the ridiculous scientific inaccuracies of Michael Bay’s Armageddon, the historical inaccuracies of Pearl Harbor are minor. In all seriousness, there are many films that deviate significantly more from the source events.

Of course, I personally prefer a film to be as historically accurate as possible. Consequently, I also understand the argument against the liberal abuse of artistic license. In regards to Pearl Harbor, this opinion against the film is best stated by one of the real life ace pilots during the attack, Kenneth M. Taylor, when he remarked it is “a piece of trash… over-sensationalized and distorted”. Again, Taylor was one of the two pilots that actually shot down Japanese aircraft during attack. Not getting a mention and having his achievements assigned to fictional characters is a personal slight. Moreover, the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor is remarkable enough. The idea that it needed a fictional love story or alterations to enhance it is questionable. For a veteran who survived the attack, I can certainly understand his stance against Hollywood using artistic license to embellish actual events. He just wants to see the men, who endured or did not make it out of that day, honored by telling the real stories with real people. Similarly, I sympathize with the criticism from historians who want historical events reenacted as authentically as possible. Nevertheless, there is a difference between a documentary and a movie. Consequently, I think moviegoers should assume that Hollywood will modify and add for entertainment purposes to sell a film. At the end of the day, it is still a business.

In addition, movies will generally state if it is a “true story”, “based on a true story”, or “inspired by true events”. A true story aims to be a dramatization of actual events and strives to be as historically accurate as possible. Based on a true story means that parts of the movie are fictionalized. Inspired by true events is the most liberal. The events and people may be mostly fiction but they are based on actual events and people. It is important to understand what type a film is. If you do not care for a certain category, you can avoid watching it altogether. If you choose to see it, then I would judge it according to its type. Personally, I can enjoy any movie if it tells a great story with amazing characters. Moreover, I like to read about how many things are historically accurate in a film afterwards. Of course, I also enjoy documentaries. Back to Pearl Harbor, the National Geographic documentary that was released along with the movie, Beyond the Movie: Pearl Harbor, is a great supplement that discusses the historical accuracy of the film and includes Bay and Bruckheimer explaining the elements and parts of their film that deviate from reality and why they made those decisions. They state that their objective is to capture the essence of what it felt like to be at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and live in that era rather than try to reenact every little detail perfectly. They also make a good point when they explain that they received eyewitness accounts that either contradicted other accounts or could not be verified. For the people who lived through those days, their memories are totally real to them. On the other hand, eye witness recollections are generally not the most reliable form of evidence especially for an event that occurred so long ago. As such, artistic license should be given reasonable leeway since it is impossible to reenact an event 100% as it happened anyway. If you want a movie that sticks to actual events as much as possible, I highly recommend Tora! Tora! Tora! which is a dramatization of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It follows the event from the American and Japanese sides from the perspective of actual people who lived through the attack. Interestingly, separate film crews worked on each side independently then their work was combined later. In addition, Kenneth Taylor was consulted on the film and portrayed in it. There is not much Hollywood embellishment or alteration of the events. On the other hand, there is no fictional drama and minimal character development. The purpose of the movie is to be as historically accurate as possible. It is great if you want to learn a lot about the actual event but do not expect a thrilling war film.

While I can debate the merits of the artistic license used in regards to altering historical events in Pearl Harbor, I cannot defend the screenplay and acting. In 2001, I was 16 years old. The entire movie is synced to a great score by Hans Zimmer. It also has great action sequences. Obviously, Kate Beckinsale is easy on the eyes. The same is true of Jennifer Garner and Jamie King. As a teenager that did not know any better, I actually thought the movie was pretty good when I saw it fifteen years ago. I did not truly comprehend how awful the screenplay and acting are until I watched it again recently. The general ideas for the fictional stories of the characters are not bad. The opening scene of the movie is in 1923. Rafe and Danny are young boys pretending to be pilots fighting in World War I (1914-1918) against the Germans. After Rafe’s father lands his plane after a crop dusting run, the boys sneak into the cockpit to play. Rafe accidentally and dangerously ignites the engine and they fly just a little bit for their first flight. Accordingly, the film establishes their love of flying at a very early age. Both characters are born to fly. The movie jumps to 1941 when they are hotshot pilots stationed on Long Island. Rafe is a cocky pilot who salivates in showboating. As such, he goads Danny into playing a game of chicken with him as they fly at each other and both turn right at the last second to buzz their planes and the envious spectators below. Naturally, it is an extremely reckless and deadly maneuver. For this reason, they are sent to then Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) who chews them out for their stupidity. In order to for Rafe to talk himself out of trouble, he tries flattery: “How could that be [reckless and irresponsible] when you’re famous for being the first man in the world ever to do it [outside loop]?  I don’t mean to be disrespectful. I just think that… well, l … it is reckless and irresponsible if you’re just doing it to be a show-off. But I was doing it to try to inspire the men, sir… in the way that you’ve inspired me. I believe the French even have a word for that when the men get together to honor their leaders. They call it an homage, sir.” Although Doolittle is still incensed, he relaxes and admits “That’s bullshit, McCawley! But it’s very, very good bullshit.” Ben Affleck is actually enjoyable as a cocky pilot in this initial scene. Unfortunately, it is downhill from there. Nevertheless, these scenes set up Rafe and Danny as exceptional pilots and best friends. Rafe is the confident and leader of the two. Danny is the more reserved and timid one who follows his friend’s lead. In terms of the film, it sets up why these fictional characters are destined to be heroes as fighter pilots during the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is a decent premise for Rafe and Danny’s storyline.


On the other hand, their overall story in the film is a train wreck because they are put into a terrible love triangle. I am not a fan of love triangles in movies in general. It becomes unbearable when the script is full of cringe worthy lines and they are poorly acted out. The triangle begins when Rafe meets Evelyn during an eye exam. As the nurse, she asks him to read the letters. Although he has perfect 20/20 vision, he has dyslexia and does not recognize, thus cannot state, the letters. While she tries to hold firm on the Army requirement to pass the test, Rafe is able to talk his way out of it and convince her his vision is fine. As such, she passes him. Naturally, he is thrilled that he is able to fly and walks away in celebration. Eventually, he realizes that she is a beautiful woman. Since he is a cocky pilot, he obviously goes back to try to get a date with her. His pickup lines include “You’re like my hero now” and “I think it’d be my duty… to take my new hero’s daughter out tonight”. She decides to toy with him and sticks him with a couple of mandatory immunization shots. There are a couple of comical moments in their romance. When he returns to hit on her, he hands her someone else’s chart. As a result, she gives him shots he already has. It causes an adverse reaction and he passes out and breaks his nose. Of course, he does not give up. He waits for her after her shift with a bottle of wine. When he uncorks the bottle, the cork hysterically and painfully flies into his broken nose. Although he attempts to remain calm, it is obvious he is in excruciating pain and his hands shake as he tries to pour out the wine. Eventually, he caves into his pain and falls into her arms so she can apply ice to his nose and sooth him. Unfortunately, there are not many too many other good scenes. The character is given lame lines, like his first pickup lines, to say. Ben Affleck’s performance is poor as Rafe stumbles and stutters all his lines to serenade Evelyn. I will admit that I would probably react the same as Rafe if I were in the presence of the gorgeous Kate Beckinsale. However, I would not expect her to respond by falling madly in love with me.

Since Rafe is a thrill seeker, he interrupts the romance by volunteering for the Eagle Squadron and fighting in the Battle of Britain. During one dogfight, he is shot down and believed to be dead. Of course, both Evelyn and Rafe’s best friend, Danny, are devastated by the loss. Predictably, they comfort each other and fall in love too. As a character, Danny is intended to be shy and nervous around woman. I suppose Josh Hartnett’s Danny tripping all over himself in an attempt to impress Evelyn is deliberate. Of course, the film does not star Affleck so he can be killed off early in the story. There is no suspense that he will return and complete a headache of a love triangle. I can tolerate a fictional love story if it is done well. If it is done extraordinary well, it can elevate the screenplay about a historical event into one of the greatest movies of all time (i.e. Titanic). In terms of Titanic, it is a long movie that runs over 3 hours. However, it is justified because of its brilliant telling of an epic love story. Michael Bay may have been inspired by Titanic and tried to replicate the same idea for Pearl Harbor. Bay’s movie is also over 3 hours. However, I would prefer he cut out the hour of the nauseating love triangle. The lines spoken by Affleck and Hartnett are garbage and they deliver them in a similar fashion. At many times during their characters’ wooing of Evelyn, you really question whether a woman, as exceptional as Kate Beckinsale, could fall for such buffoonery. The romances also weakens Beckinsale’s Evelyn as a character. Outside of the love triangle, she proves herself as a strong and intelligent woman with leadership qualities showcased in her role as a nurse and friend. Within the love triangle, she is a lovesick schoolgirl waiting to melt into the arms of Rafe and Danny. In multiple ways, the love triangle really drags down the entire movie.

In regards to the movie setting the stage leading up to the attack, the film could have done a lot more to explain and develop the circumstances for war instead of portraying an awful love story. It only touches on a few key points at a high level. In order to deter Japanese aggression in the Pacific, the United States imposes an oil embargo on Japan and moves its Pacific fleet to Pearl Harbor. Since Japan lacks its own natural resources, the embargo forces it to consider invading and taking control of the natural resource rich Southeast Asia. As the US Pacific fleet is the greatest threat to that conquest, the Japanese are forced to launch a decisive military strike to neutralize the fleet if peace cannot be achieved and embargo lifted. Of course, war is inevitable. However, the United States does not think the Japanese would strike Pearl Harbor. First, the distance from Japan seems too far for the Japanese to risk moving a task force such a long distance. Next, it is assumed that the waters of Pearl Harbor are too shallow for torpedoes to be used. As the film demonstrates, the Japanese addresses this issue with wooden fins that will float the torpedoes. As history showed us, the Japanese were able to overcome both challenges. On the other hand, American military intelligence was intercepting the Japanese radio transmissions. In the film, Dan Akroyd portrays Captain Thurman in intelligence. He reports that a group of Japanese carriers departed from Japan and disappeared from American surveillance. He also notes some of the messages his team are receiving and trying to decipher. His gut feeling tells him that Japanese have set sail to attack Pearl Harbor because it is where it would hurt the most for the Americans. This scene is meant to show how the United States should have known about the attack on Pearl Harbor ahead of time. In fact, many conspiracy theories are based on the fact that American intelligence had already broken the Japanese naval code. Accordingly, theories have accused President Roosevelt of knowing and allowing the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor so that he could rally the country to enter World War II. In addition, the absence of the American aircraft carriers, who were out on exercise during the attack, is another fact conspiracy theorists cling to. In my opinion, it is a cynical view of the attack formed by cherry picking facts with 20/20 hindsight and perceived through the skeptical lens of individuals who have total mistrust of the government since the fabricated pretenses used to engage in the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that led to the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. Without a doubt, the American intelligence knew that the Japanese were on the brink of an attack. However, it did not know when or where. As the scene with Captain Thurman accurately depicts, the targets were much more likely to be the “Philippines and Southeast Asia”. Again, there were significant issues that made attacking Pearl Harbor a risky and bold decision by the Japanese. In regards to the aircraft carriers, I agree with the consensus that it was just luck that the carriers were outside the Harbor when the Japanese attacked. World War II, especially the war in the Pacific, ushered in the age of the aircraft carrier. Before hostilities, it was still presumed that fighting via battleship against battleship would still be the most prominent form of warfare in the Pacific. In my opinion, it would have taken incredible foresight to definitely know that the aircraft carrier would play such a prominent role in the war. Again, the accusations are based on perfect hindsight and not trying to make the decision with the information and fog of war at the time.


The film also points out some of the factors that made the defeat such a colossal disaster for the United States. The most significant reason is that the aircraft that defended the Harbor were parked in a straight line and side to side because sabotage was feared more than an aerial attack. For this reason, they become perfect targets for the Japanese to hit. Next, ships and resources were being routed to the Atlantic because the President and his military high command believed that “Europe is the greater danger”. Although the military had a primitive form of radar at the time, it was untested and unreliable. As Admiral Kimmel correctly notes in the film, “I’ve seen these new radar screens, Major. There’s no way of telling whether they’re ours, theirs or a flock of damn birds.” Prophetically, the radars pick up the Japanese planes on their approach to Oahu on the day of the attack but are mistaken for “a flight of B-17’s coming in from the mainland”. Again, Pearl Harbor highlights the key signs missed by the American forces before the attack and the shortcomings in the strategies used to defend the. However, these discussions are a major reason the attack on Pearl Harbor is such an interesting story and lesson in American history. From my perspective, Bay misses the boat on not elaborating and developing these points more in the story of his movie and concentrating on a fictional love story instead.


The strength of the movie is the special effects utilized by Bay to reenact the attack on Pearl Harbor on screen. Of course, it is his forte. In my opinion, you really feel like you are in the battle. For the shooting of the movie, Bay has a great balance of actual physical stunts and CGI. For example, he borrowed a couple of real Japanese Zero fighter planes for filming. Then, his crew utilizes CGI to replicate those planes to make it appear like there are hundreds of planes in the sky. In my opinion, there are many memorable scenes in the battle. The pilots’ view of the Japanese planes up in the fluffy clouds as they near Oahu is spectacular. The shot reflects the beauty and peacefulness of the island and the pristine, clear day on December 7, 1941 before the bombs begun to fall. With modern technology, Bay is able to vividly shoot the most horrific moments of the attack. The most tragic moment is the destruction of the USS Arizona. In the film, Bay is able to bring us into the cockpit of the high level Japanese bomber that releases its bomb. Afterwards, the camera shot allows us to follow the bomb from a bird’s eye view as it pieces the hull and enters the ammunition magazines at the forward section of the ship. As we know, it ignites a massive explosion that kills 1,177 men which is almost half of the men killed on that day. The USS Arizona still lies in the same place today with a memorial built on top of it. You cannot feel anything but terrified at the replication of that massive explosion in the film. The second most haunting moment is the capsizing of the USS Oklahoma. The movie portrays the helpless sailors that try to swim away from the ship before it pulls them in. Moreover, it shows men, inside the hull as it floods, desperately trying to open the doors to escape to no avail. As a viewer, it is truly heartbreaking watching those men realize they are taking their last breaths before they drown. In my opinion, those two moments most provocatively represent the horror and carnage faced on that fateful day and Bay does justice to them.


Of course, there are many stories of heroism on that day. One of the most inspiring heroes is Doris Miller, who is portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. Miller is an African American who serves as the main cook on the USS West Virginia. Since the navy was segregated at the time, he only had a non-combat role and had not been trained to handle weaponry. As a result, it was truly remarkable that he manned a 50-caliber antiaircraft gun and shot down 3-4 planes during the attack. One of the most uplifting moments in the film is when Cuba Gooding, as Miller, mans the gun and shoots down a plane. Of course, the other famous tale of courage is the two pilots who got into the air and shot down enemy aircraft. In this case, the story is assigned to the fictional characters of Rafe and Danny. The movie also does a good job of showing the catastrophe inflicted on the American aircraft that were mostly annihilated on the airfields before they ever got off the ground. Rafe and Danny fruitlessly drive to one of the main airfields only to see the planes had already been or in the process of being destroyed. A significant part of the battle in the movie portrays Rafe and Danny running around with their friends. They avoid and fire back at enemy aircraft with machine guns as they try to find working planes they can fly. They eventually find a couple of planes at one of the smaller airfields and take off despite Zeroes in hot pursuit. Of course, the chase and dogfight shown in the film is mostly fiction but it does provide for some exciting action scenes. For example, Rafe and Danny play their game of chicken on a group of Zeroes flying after them. When they veer right of each other at the last second, the enemy planes collide. That maneuver definitely did not happen in real life but it makes for a great action sequence on screen. At the same time, the film does a solid job portraying the carnage the nurses and doctors faced as injured men and men covered in oil overwhelm the hospital. I did not need the movie embellishing events by depicting the Japanese purposely bombing and shooting at the hospital and medical personnel because it never occurred. Nevertheless, providing the chaos through the perspective of Evelyn definitely pays tribute to the heroism of medical personnel on that day. Despite the shortcomings of the screenplay, I believe Bay does a good job capturing and portraying the essence of the attack and allowing you to experience it. Of course, I also respect the opinion of veterans who lived through that day. For the ones who were special guests when the movie was screened at the main premiere in Pearl Harbor in 2001, they universally agreed that the movie was a total Hollywood creation and the battle is sensationalized. Nevertheless, I watch historical films fully understanding that most of the action scenes did not actually occur and it is up to me to read up on what the historical discrepancies are.


The film also includes a couple of famous quotes reacting to the attack. The first quote is credited to Admiral Yamamoto: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.” I will note that he is alleged to have said it but there is no real evidence he did. Nevertheless, those words absolutely reflect his feelings on the attack. Yamamoto went to school at Harvard and had a great understanding and respect for Americans. He felt that there would be nothing that would enrage the American people and fill them with resolve more than a sneak attack before the declaration of war. He believed attacking the United States would be a horrible mistake unless Japan was willing and able to invade and march all the way to Washington D.C. to dictate terms of surrender. Of course, he knew that was impossible and that Japan could not win the ensuing war. Yamamoto was also at odds with the more militaristic and fanatical leaders running the war effort at home. It was even rumored that those leaders would have liked to assassinate Yamamoto if he was not always with and protected by the Navy that revered him. Regardless, Yamamoto is a soldier and loyal patriot who will eventually follow orders. Accordingly, he masterminds the attack on Pearl Harbor. Again, I wish Bay spent more of the film detailing the circumstances leading up to the attack. Yamamoto would have been a fascinating character to develop. His views on a war with America should not have been glanced over and summarized with one line in the movie. The other famous lines reacting to the attack are obviously the speech given by FDR in an address to Congress to declare war on December 8. In the film, the speech is truncated: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States Of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by Naval and Air Forces of the Empire of Japan. It is obvious that planning the attack began many weeks ago, during the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace. The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American military forces, I regret to tell you that over three thousand American lives have been lost. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this pre-meditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. Because of this unprovoked, dastardly attack by Japan, I ask that the congress declare a state of War.” Jon Voight does a good job portraying FDR and delivering that famous speech about an infamous day.

The film could have ended with Yamamoto’s line and FDR’s speech. However, Pearl Harbor has a third act that portrays the Doolittle Raid. I understand the sentiment that the movie is long enough at that point and that the viewer is ready for it to end already. Nevertheless, I actually loved the inclusion of the Doolittle Raid as the ending of the film. If the movie was not bogged down by a poor love triangle and cut an hour of that nonsense out of it, the Doolittle Raid would have been appreciated more. On December 21, 1941, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor; FDR officially ordered the bombing of the Japanese homeland as soon as possible to boost public morale. In addition, it would make the Japanese question their invincibility. A quote from Iron Man 2 better explains it: “If you can make God bleed, then people will cease to believe in him.” For these reasons, the Doolittle Raid was purely psychological and militarily insignificant. However, battles and wars are fought by human beings. As a result, strong morale and the belief in victory often proves more powerful than the biggest bombs. Of course, the Japanese navy and military dominated Pacific at the beginning of the war after the strike on Pearl Harbor. For this reason, it seemed impossible to launch planes off land or sail aircraft carriers close enough to bomb the Japanese homeland. However, Navy Captain Francis Low devised a daring and risky idea to launch Army bombers [B-25] off of an aircraft carrier. Since landing those aircraft back on the aircraft carrier was impossible, the planes were directed to fly straight to and land in China. During the mission, the task force was spotted well before their intended launch point and forced to launch the bombers early. It contributed to the planes running out of fuel and the flight crews bailing out or crash landing in China after they completed the bombing runs. Again, the attack inflicted negligible damage. Nevertheless, it made the Japanese question their invulnerability and the ability of its leaders to protect them. In response, the leaders wanted to increase its defensive perimeter of Japan. In my opinion, it was an overreaction. It led directly to the Japanese navy engaging in the Battle of Midway that cost them dearly. They lost 4 of their largest carriers, all of which were part of the 6 carrier task force that attacked Pearl Harbor, at Midway. It marked at the beginning of the end for the Empire of Japan. Although much intense fighting continued over the next three years, the United States would slowly but surely defeat the Japanese after the Battle of Midway. For all these reasons, the Doolittle Raid is a smart and upbeat way to end a Pearl Harbor film.

The portrayal of the Doolittle Raid in Pearl Harbor is full of Hollywood embellishments but decent. Again, I like Jon Voight’s portrayal of FDR. There is a scene when FDR addresses his joint chiefs and demands that they determine a way to bomb the Japanese homeland immediately. However, his advisors are overly cautious after the defeat at Pearl Harbor and continually try to dissuade the President from any bold decisions. In response, Voight’s FDR gives a strong, inspiring message: “Gentlemen… most of you did not know me when I had the use of my legs. I was strong and proud and arrogant. Now I wonder every hour of my life why God put me into this chair. But when I see defeat in the eyes of my countrymen… in your eyes right now, I start to think that maybe he brought me down for times like these when we all need to be reminded who we truly are that we will not give up or give in.” At the end of his speech, he unshackles the braces for his polio stricken legs and stands up at the head of the table: “Do not tell me it can’t be done”. Of course, the real FDR never did such a thing. Nevertheless, I think it is a clever use of artistic license to create a single, fictional scene that demonstrates the motivational and determined leadership of FDR during the Great Depression and World War II. Naturally, sticklers for historical accuracy will hate it. Shortly afterwards in the movie, the idea for the Doolittle Raid is conceived and initiated.


The role of Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle is played by Alec Baldwin. The real Doolittle was a reserved person compared to the bold and loud cowboy portrayed by Baldwin. In all honesty, Doolittle is not as famous as someone like FDR. I do not know much about him other than he led the Raid. As such, he is a type of character a film may take the liberty to embellish since most people will not be familiar with him anyway. Again, he is introduced at the beginning of the film as the superior officer for Rafe and Danny. Due to their heroism at Pearl Harbor, he recruits them for his raid. Again, it is another part of assigning real stories to the fictitious characters of Rafe and Danny. Fighter pilots would not have flown bombers. For the purposes of the film, I actually enjoy the embellishment of Doolittle as a charismatic hardass. He likes to give his men a difficult time but cares deeply for them. He also leads by example. When his men train and repeatedly fail to takeoff within the distance of an aircraft carrier, he eventually lines up the men and does it himself to prove it is possible. In addition, he is portrayed as a bit of a badass. When he speaks to Rafe and Danny on the carrier on route to Japan, he notes what he will do with the medals of peace the Japanese ambassadors presented to the United States during negotiations: “I’m gonna wire them to the bombs and give them back to them.” When he is asked in the mission briefing of what he would do if he is forced to bailout over Japanese airspace, he responds that he is not built to be a prisoner so “I’d have my crew eject, I’d aim my plane for the sweetest military target and I’d kill as many of those bastards as I could.” On the other hand, the character also shows a sense of humor. Similar to the actual raid, the task force is spotted by a Japanese patrol and forced to launch much earlier than planned. For this reason, there is a scramble to remove all non-essential equipment so additional fuel can be carried. Accordingly, it is questionable whether the change in weight would bog the planes down and cause them to crash into the ocean during takeoff. Naturally, Doolittle is the first in line to try. He notices his co-pilot is saying his prayers and asks “When did you find religion?” When his co-pilot answers “When you assigned me to this mission, sir”, Doolittle nonchalantly but seriously asks with a smirk “Pray for both of us.” His exchange with Rafe at the beginning of the movie is another example of his sense of humor. Not everyone is going to like Baldwin’s Doolittle but I enjoy his performance because of those qualities above.

The film follows the raid through the dropping of bombs on Tokyo [in actuality, they hit other cities too] and the crash landing of some of the planes, the ones piloted by Rafe and Danny, in rice paddies in China as they run out of fuel. It also provides a conclusion to the ridiculous love triangle. I could care less about either Rafe or Danny as characters. If I had to choose a side, I would have picked Danny because of my irritation with a young Ben Affleck. When they crash land, they are coincidentally surrounded immediately by a Japanese patrol. Of course, it is just for the film. In reality, the Japanese launched a brutal campaign around China in an attempt to hunt down the Doolittle Raiders. To my annoyance, Danny eventually sacrifices himself to save Rafe. Before the mission, there is also baby drama because Danny impregnated Evelyn. She informs Rafe but Danny only learns of it right before he dies. Rafe returns home with Danny’s casket, marries Evelyn, and raises the son who they name Danny. Again, this love triangle really bogs down the entire film. Way too much time is spent on it and there is no real payoff that justifies it.

If you watch this film, you can really skip all of the pointless love story and start right before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The special effects and action sequences are the strength of the film. It is a good case study to debate the use of artistic license against ensuring historical accuracy in a film. Although Pearl Harbor definitely has its faults, it has some good moments. From my perspective, it still captures the essence of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the horror faced and courage displayed by the brave men there on December 7, 1941. Hopefully, it spurs viewers to read and learn more about one of the most important historical moments of the 20th century.


My visit to the USS Arizona Memorial on Oahu during November 2016. Oil from the ship stills trickles to the surface 75 years later. Click on images to enlarge.

“World War ll, for us, began at Pearl Harbor and 1,177 men still lie entombed in the battleship Arizona. America suffered, but America grew stronger. It was not inevitable. The times tried our souls and through the trial, we overcame.” – Evelyn’s closing remarks narrating the importance of Pearl Harbor

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