Rafe and Danny are childhood friends who have always wanted to be pilots. The film opens in 1923 with the boys playing in a broken-down biplane on Rafe’s family farm. Danny comes from a less-than-loving home. And Rafe takes on the role of protective big brother. Flash forward to 1941. The two are now P-40 pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and Europe is already at war.
But love is in the air too. Rafe meets the smart and beautiful Evelyn, a Navy nurse, when he and Danny take a physical exam in order to be granted flight status. Afraid he'll fail the vision test, Rafe hides a cheat-sheet that lists all the letters in the bottom row of the eye chart. Nurse Evelyn catches him, but gives him a passing grade anyway. Romance quickly blooms.
Rafe is eager to fight, and because the United States is not yet at war, he volunteers for the Eagle Squadron, a group of Americans who are set to help the British Royal Air Force fight the Nazi blitz. When Evelyn asks him why he’s risking his life, Rafe says, "I’m not anxious to die. I’m anxious to matter." All too soon, Rafe is shot down over the English Channel and presumed dead. But when Danny’s consoling of Evelyn turns into attraction, audiences wonder if Rafe will make a comeback.
So what does all this have to do with Pearl Harbor? Nothing except to set the stage for two more hours of cinematic fireworks. Forrest Gump-like, Rafe, Danny and Evelyn manage to be participants in a bevy of major historical events as Pearl Harbor’s soap opera plot is overlaid on the story of the impending Japanese attack.
positive elements: Rafe and Danny are loyal friends willing to die for one another. Both display a strong sense of duty and a willingness to risk danger to fight evil. A group of pilots, when given the opportunity to back out of what is most probably a suicide mission, all volunteer to remain. Rafe respects Evelyn and refuses to participate in premarital sex. Soldiers and airmen risk death to fight the enemy and to save each other. A Navy captain goes out of his way to compliment an African-American cook who suffers under the racism of the day. A soldier lets the woman he loves stay in a relationship with another man because he knows it’s best for her. One pilot gives his life to save another. Doolittle says, "There's nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer." Also, in 1941, most Americans still believed in the institution of marriage, and Pearl Harbor reflects that.
spiritual content: A Navy chaplain urges a badly wounded man, "Hold on to your faith, son." He reminds another of Jesus’ words, "Today you will be with me in paradise." When the man dies, the chaplain says, "Go with God, my son." A priest gives last rites to dead sailors. An American pilot crosses himself before taking off. His mission commander asks, "When did you find religion?" "When you assigned me to this mission," he responds. "Then pray for both of us," the mission commander says. A pilot who is shot down relates how, when he thought he was going to die, he made a deal with God to be allowed to live. "I kept my end of the bargain," he says. A flirtatious and irreverent nurse quips after a church service, "I just had my slate wiped clean. Now I can think about how I can dirty it up again." A soldier, looking around at the utter destruction, asks, "Where is God in all this?" President Roosevelt, speaking of his being confined to a wheelchair because of polio, says God brought him down to that level so that he could better understand God’s will. On the other hand, Japanese pilots pray to their ancestors before a Shinto shrine.
sexual content: A soldier gives advice on how to seduce nurses. The nurses joke among themselves about seeing men in their underwear, and one comments on a soldier’s "cute butt" after she gave him an inoculation (audiences also see a couple of "cute butts" along the way). A nurse looks forward to "making out." Another nurse says to a soldier, "Tonight you’re mine!" Rafe, when tempted to take Evelyn up to a hotel room, decides not to. "I can’t do this," he says. "It’s not right. I don’t want anything to regret later. That’s what I want to come home to." A mechanic berates a pilot who is painting the figure of a barely clad woman on the nose of a bomber: "I don’t want anyone painting [breasts] on my airplane." A woman wears a low-cut nightgown. Others wear bikinis. A soldier comments, "Don’t you think if your best friend was doing your girl that you wouldn’t come back and beat the crap out of him?" There’s one scene of implied sex between a soldier and nurse, although nothing about the depiction is explicit. The next day, when the soldier says to her, "I’m not sorry," she replies, "I don’t know. It’s too fast." The results of that liaison are portrayed neutrally.
violent content: While the film features intense battle scenes, the violence is not nearly as explicit or gruesome as in the film it is likely to be compared with, Saving Private Ryan. Men are blown up by torpedoes and bombs. Others are engulfed in flames. Japanese planes strafe sailors in the water and men running across a runway. Japanese and American planes are shot down and crash into buildings or ships. Sailors drown in a flooding engine room. Badly burned and wounded men stagger toward a hospital. Blood spurts across a nurse’s white uniform. And a jumble of dead bodies is lifted out of the water in a cargo net. Survivors of the Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo engage in a close firefight with Japanese troops. A pilot is assigned a plane whose pilot was killed and whose blood is still splattered across the canopy. Elsewhere, soldiers engage in a bar fight and participate in a dirty boxing match. At the beginning of the movie Danny's abusive dad slaps him around. Rafe comes to the rescue by whacking the dad across the head with a plank.
crude or profane language: The Lord’s name is abused more than 20 times. Other profanities, including the s-word, are used at least that often. American soldiers call the Japanese "Japs." And during a boxing match a sailor utters an racial epithet aimed at an African American.
drug and alcohol content: Alcohol and tobacco get a lot of screen time. Soldiers and their girls drink beer in bar and clubs. Sailors salute each other with shots of whiskey. Men drink martinis. Some soldiers smoke, and one hands out victory cigars. Japanese soldiers toast their upcoming raid.
other negative elements: Both Rafe and Danny are willing to break the rules, starting with Rafe’s use of a cheat-sheet during the eye exam. He later tells a nurse, "I know I’m a bad influence" as he steals a boat to take her on a harbor cruise. Danny disobeys regs by taking Evelyn for a spin in his fighter. Sailors play dice and wager on a boxing match. The Americans are understandably enraged by the Japanese sneak attack, but talk of fighting back often turns to crude talk of revenge.
conclusion: As a military history buff, I was pleased to see a mostly-accurate account of the attack on Pearl Harbor with only a few liberties taken for the sake of the story. But I was upset that the Japanese admirals and generals are portrayed as having had no choice but to attack the American fleet. History disagrees. Besides, many of their comments and actions are far removed from the context of the day. In the movie, a Japanese gunner, seeing children near the area where the attack is to begin, tries to motion the kids to safety. In reality, American soldiers were keenly aware of the glee exhibited by some of the attacking pilots. "The bombing [in the movie] was the way it happened," remembers Pearl Harbor veteran Daniel S. Fruchter. But it seems the way the pilots were portrayed left a bit to be desired. "They came down to 40 to 50 feet. You could see the mustaches on their faces. Not only that, but the grins as well."
I was expecting 21st-century morality to be grafted onto 1941 (think Titanic), but for the most part the men and women in this movie behave as they do in movies from that era. Still, Pearl Harbor is without question intense, and the soap opera subplot is problematic more than once. Not to mention the profane language. So do the overall historical messages of courage, loyalty and sacrifice fully compensate? No. Swim carefully in this harbor. Entertainment Zeros are lurking.