Pearl Harbor Review

Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 2 release of Pearl Harbor. He enjoyed the film, unlike many others; read on to see why, and whether the disc is any good

The Film

Of all the major 2001 releases, two films split audiences down the middle most. The first was the stunning Moulin Rouge, a film that most admitted was a masterpiece of sorts; of course, it was also loathed by a large number of people for what was perceived as massive self-indulgence on the part of Baz Luhrmann. The other was Pearl Harbor, although it was far more universally agreed that the film was something between a complete artistic failure and an enjoyable popcorn movie, and certainly nothing more. While I wouldn’t attempt to argue, at least for the cinema version, that the film is any kind of masterpiece, I certainly think there is more to it than the naysayers claimed when it was released.

The plot, infamously, concerns the love triangle of Rafe McCawley (Affleck), a fighter pilot, Danny Walker (Harnett), his best friend and fellow pilot, and Evelyn (Beckinsale), the nurse that both fall in love with. Of course, the triangle is complicated by such minor matters as Rafe departing for England to fight the Nazis, growing internation discontent, and, of course, the Japanese launching a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, ‘a day that will live in infamy’.

The most common criticism was that the first 80 minutes or so of the film, or everything before the attack sequence, was dramatically turgid, badly written and over-directed. It is unfair to see the film in strictly literal terms; Bay, a self-confessed cineaste, is clearly paying homage to the infamously soppy 1940s wartime romances such as Waterloo Sunset, albeit on a far grander scale. There’s something enjoyably shameless about Bay’s worldview, with every character looking as if they’ve stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting, at least until the inevitable destruction begins, and the sheer verve with which the romantic shenanigans are staged renders criticism pointless, to some extent. Certainly, there are longeurs, and 20 minutes or so might have been cut painlessly, with some weak dialogue feeling slightly intrusive. However, the film is highly enjoyable, even at this so-called ‘low point’.

The attack sequence, and subsequent retaliation on Tokyo, are more conventionally Bay and Bruckheimer material, and are highly successful as both recreations of the historical events and elaborately staged action scenes. The problem with the version of the film that we now have, and which will be rectified with the director’s cut, is that the level of violence is far too low to truly convey the horror of the attack; instead, the scenes feel too sanitised to be truly shocking, and the film suffers as a result, despite some jaw-dropping shots. Bay has frequently been criticised for his MTV-style cutting, and detractors of that will find plenty to criticise here; certainly, although less prevalent than in Armageddon, he has a tendency to cut away too quickly from potentially awe-inspiring moments. However, with the help of John Schwartzmann, his cinematographer, he manages to make the film look consistently fantastic, a testament to his background in advertising and to his skill as a filmmaker.

The film has flaws aplenty, with some banal lines, hammy moments of acting and occasional dramatic misjudgements leading some critics to deride the film as rubbish. While it isn’t the career-defining landmark that Bay perhaps thought it might be, this is a pretty strong entry into the canon of WW2 films, with some superbly visceral moments, a refreshingly balanced portrayal of the Japanese and some strong performances from a good cast (although, for my money, Beckinsale is miscast, being far too much of an English rose to truly convince as an American). Recommended for those who have been put off by the naysayers, or even those who just want to watch a good war film.

The Picture

A superb transfer is offered here by Buena Vista. It’s worth noting that this is currently the only version of the film on DVD that doesn’t need the film to be spread over two discs, which may well endear it to couch potatoes everywhere. There are some slight moments of edge enhancement and shimmering that reduce the rating slightly; otherwise, this is yet another near-perfect transfer, as you would expect from such a recent film.

The Sound

Lacking the DTS mix of the R1 version, the Dolby soundtrack here is very good, but slightly lacklustre at times. While the action scenes make good use of surrounds, the sound occasionally sounded indistinct in quieter scenes, and the dialogue was occasionally drowned out by sound effects. Not bad, but not the test disc that the R1 is, by all accounts.

The Extras

The 4-disc director’s cut, which is being released in May, will be the disc to buy if you’re at all interested in the film, featuring as it does 3 commentaries, an R-rated version of the film with added violence, and more documentaries, featurettes etc than you can shake a stick at. What we have here is, unsurprisingly, rather less good. The making-of documentary is lengthy but mainly promotional in nature, with the interesting snippets almost certain to be expanded in the special edition. A lacklustre featurette on the ‘Japanese perspective’, which is 2 minutes of Bay and Affleck saying ‘We wanted to show both sides’ is included, as well as the superb trailer and a dull music video.


A very underrated, if still flawed, film is presented on an underwhelming DVD, although this is by no means the definitive presentation of the film. Not exactly recommended, then, but certainly worth a rental if you can’t wait the 5 months or so until the more ‘epic’ version of the film is finally released…

Alexander Larman

Updated: Dec 06, 2001

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