Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor (2001)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Alec Baldwin
Extras: Featurettes, Trailers, and Faith Hill Music Video

"I fear all we've done is to awake a sleeping giant."

As I sat down to watch the Blu-ray release of 'Pearl Harbor, ' I found myself thinking a lot about the recent 'Flags of our Fathers' and its companion film, 'Letters from Iwo Jima.' 'Pearl Harbor' was never one of my favorite war films and there was (and is) a lot wrong with it on several, different levels. But until I watched 'Letters from Iwo Jima,' I hadn't realized that 'Pearl Harbor' could've been a much more effective telling of the attack if it had simply relinquished its soap opera roots for a more rounded historical examination of the facts.

The plot synopsis for 'Pearl Harbor' should be a cinch… everyone that's made it as far as the fourth grade has learned about the surprise attack that led to our involvement in World War II. Unfortunately, 'Pearl Harbor' shoves all of that meaty substance into the background to focus on two, boyhood friends, Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett doing his best Matt Damon), officers in the Air Force who fall in love with the same woman (Kate Beckinsale). When Rafe is shot down during an international mission, everyone assumes he's dead and Danny finds comfort in the arms of Rafe's girl. When Rafe returns home, alive in every sense of the word, he's put at odds with the two lovers as they struggle to cope with the bittersweet reality of his survival. Of course, their conflict is raw and unresolved when the Japanese attack the Hawaiian military base and the men are thrust into friendship once again to battle the baddies in the skies.

The fact that it took me an entire paragraph to get to anything about the battle itself is the exact reason 'Pearl Harbor' suffers at almost every turn. I don't need a period drama about love gained and lost, I need an accurately viable exploration of the drama surrounding this historical aggression on American soil. The success of 'Titanic' obviously effected this production in every way possible and, when you step back at look at 'Pearl Harbor' as a whole, you begin to realize that it's a spin on the setup of 'Titanic' that liberally borrows from that box office beast's structure. Beyond this faltering, the Japanese are also left to the sidelines and are only featured in a few moments of clichéd honor that reduces their culture to a one note song. Particuarly with what we understand about war in this modern age, I really expected to see a fuller portrayal of both sides of the conflict.

There are some nice performers in smaller parts (Alec Baldwin chief among them) and the lead actors do well with what they're given… but it all seems shallow and unimportant in the light of the historical implications of that day. It cheapens the sacrifice and discounts the heroism of the men with barebone glimpses at the pilots and naval officers that found their eternal homes under the Pacific Ocean. Until a more resonant film is able to present the story of Pearl Harbor in a grounded and authentic manner (in the vein of 'Saving Private Ryan,' 'Black Hawk Down,' and even 'The Thin Red Line'), I'll have to look to 'Tora, Tora, Tora!' as the best film about the fateful events of that morning.

Luckily, the video presentation is less of a mixed bag than the film itself and 'Pearl Harbor' delivers some breathtaking shots to your HDTV. Brought to this release utilizing the MPEG-2 codec, the filmmakers' attention to detail is immediately apparent with crisp sharpness and a lack of source noise. Quieter scenes, particuarly at night, have a softer appearance that intentionally harkens back to its classic film roots, and more frantic battle scenes remain consistent even when planes are shattering across the screen.

To be fair, it's not perfect and you'll probably notice that the makeup on the actors is more noticeable than in most movies. Skin tones are flushed and lean towards feeling unnatural, but the starker daytime scenes that dominate the film after the half-way mark more than make up for it. On the flip side, the attack itself is harrowing and every spot of rust and dent of metal is beautifully reflected in the strong CG and effects work. The only knock in the look of 'Pearl Harbor' is in the last few nighttime scenes on the attack on Japan. Fly-by shots show their CG roots and the ground scenes seem to be shot on a studio lot, as far away from Japan as possible. On top of this, the introduction to high def causes the actors to appear a bit more blue-screened into their aviation scenes… but the overall visual package is worth the upgrade for fans of the film.

Nit picking the video aside, the audio presentation on tap in 'Pearl Harbor' is easily one of the best I've heard on any format and should definitely be a go-to disc for audiophiles to show off their systems. Presented in another wonderful PCM uncompressed mix, each hit and explosion registers with amazing depth and clarity that never crowds the soundfield with unbalanced noise. Each effect is layered nicely with the dialogue, even when music is swelling beneath, and the sound design has an impressive ability to create the illusion that scenes are unfolding in your home theater. Your subwoofer may disappear in a burst of flame, but you'll be smiling all the way to Best Buy to pick up a new one. It's moments like this that I realize how vital sound design is and it makes me more critical of the less involving tracks found in many other films.

Returning back to the so-so roots of the movie, the supplemental package is starving in comparison to the faux-leather-bound monster edition released on DVD a few years back. There are two solid docs on this Blu-ray release that are worth your time, but I question this edition because I know another larger set will magically appear on Blu-ray some day in the future. Unfortunately, the featurettes only skim the surface of the wealth of material available on the attack (which are present in the aforementioned gi-normous, 4-disc special edition available on DVD) and an educational opportunity was really missed. I'm a fan of the history channel so fleetingly short interviews with a handful of survivors doesn't seem to do justice to their tragedy and heroism. Finally, rounding out these slightly above average documentaries, you'll find the trailers for the film and a Faith Hill music video pathetically trying to capitalize on the Celine Dion bump in fame from 'Titanic'.

In the end, I would rent 'Pearl Harbor' and save your cash for better war films that will be hitting Blu-ray over the next few years. This release may boast a nice visual package grounded in an earth-shattering sound mix, but you should only be considering this edition if you're a pure audiophile. Tech geeks will hardly be able to contain their excitement and it's certainly a great showcase disc to pop in when discussing the importance of sound design and presentation.