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and Jehane Noujaim
Can a ship founder in a Hollywood movie without cuing a love theme? Probably not until another sort of film altogether has swamped Titanic’s grosses. More than 3,000 people were killed or wounded when Japanese forces attacked Hawaii in 1941, but Pearl Harbor wants us to care about only three of the survivors: hotshot pilots and childhood friends Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) and the woman they both love, Navy nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale). War is hell, but producer Jerry Bruckheimer, writer Randall Wallace, and director Michael Bay focus on the private heck of the fictional threesome’s romantic entanglement.
Of course, this meta-historical drama offers plenty of backgroundand foregroundnoise as we wait for the moment when one of the two pals will settle down with Evelyn. Cuba Gooding Jr. gets a small but earnest piece of the story as one of its few actual history-book characters: African-American cook “Dorie” Miller, who promoted himself to gunner when Japanese Zeros began to attack, downing two of the planes. And the three-hour flick devotes close to a third of its running time to the carnage of the Japanese strike, whipping fast, handheld pans through the chaos in the manner of Saving Private Ryan (not to mention every Dogma film ever made).
The action sequences are impressive, with the seamlessness of the special effects boosted by camera movements so hyperbolic that fakery has no time to register. The love story’s phoniness is harder to disguise, however. None of the principals are convincing, and there’s barely a line of dialogue that wouldn’t be improved by being uttered at the same time as an explosion.
Interestingly, the film is not guilty of any major historical gaffes. Still, many details ring false, from Hartnett’s bangs to Beckinsale’s upscale wardrobe. (It was nice of the Navy to issue Evelyn a whole rack of silky dresses when it ran out of uniforms.)
The story begins in the hilariously overdappled light of ’20s Tennessee, when Rafe and Danny were boys, and quickly moves to 1940 New York, where Rafe and Evelyn fall in love. Then Rafe volunteers to fly with the RAF, and Evelyn and Danny transfer to Pearl Harbor. Flying over the English Channel, Rafe provides some dogfight sequences to sustain the interest of combat-ready viewers until the Japanese attack halfway into the film, as well as a major plot complication: He bails out and is presumed dead, leaving Evelyn and Danny to wrap their grief in the billowing parachutes of the storage shed where they picturesquely first make love.
The undead Rafe arrives in Pearl Harbor just in time for the major unpleasantness, preceded by some recriminations of the two friends who went on with their lives without him. Ending so old-fashioned a movie with an American defeat wouldn’t do, however, so Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) appears to recruit Rafe and Danny for a mission ordered by no less than FDR (Jon Voight): the daring April 1942 bombing raid on Tokyo. It’s one small step for the convalescent American war machine, one more occasion for composer Hans
Zimmer to pile on the swelling violins and elegiac chorales.
In the History 101 exchanges that set various scenes, the script hastily airs the Japanese point of view on the imminent war. Still, Pearl Harbor doesn’t exactly injure America’s self-image by contrasting the “date which will live in infamy” with the Doolittle raid, which did little damage. The film’s most tasteless touch is having Rafe give Evelyn an origami crane as a token of his love. The paper crane has long been a universal symbol of Hiroshima, where the United States took its revenge for Pearl Harbor with an inferno that even Jerry Bruckheimer wouldn’t dare try to sweeten with a love story.
It’s not very often that the viewer begins watching a movie with a better idea of what’s going to happen than the filmmakers had. That’s the case, however, with Startup.com, a documentary about a New York Internet company, govWorks.com. Directors Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim clearly expected to chronicle the inside story of a big winner, much as Hegedus and her husband, D.A. Pennebaker (who produced this film), did with The War Room, their backstage account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential victory. But everyone who ever thought about opening an E-Trade account knows better: GovWorks is not going to work.
The movie has an unusual, and even dubious, origin: Noujaim was the roommate of Kaleil Isaza Tuzman when the latter quit a solid job at Goldman Sachs to join high school pal Tom Herman in a new venture. The company (which Tuzman wanted to call untocaesar.com) planned to put government-consumer transactions onlineissuing building permits, paying parking tickets, and such. In retrospect, the scheme seems demented: Doing such a thing for only one city would be overwhelming, and govWorks.com hoped to make deals with jurisdictions all over the country. Then there was the small matter of making a profit, which can be problematic even for the least ambitious government contractor.
Nonetheless, venture-capital companies across the nation opened their doors to Tuzman and Hermanand, sometimes, to Noujaim, who soon acquired Hegedus as her collaborator. From the opening scenes, Tuzman’s manner is overweening, and conflicts quickly arise between him and Herman. Over the course of the film, the story line shifts from triumph to catastrophe, but the real focus becomes the growing rift between the hard-driving Tuzmanwho insists, “I refuse to lose”and the less fervid Herman. The latter, for example, refuses to work on weekends, time he spends with his young daughter. His partner’s personal life is less grounded: One of the two girlfriends glimpsed in the film protests that Tuzman is ignoring her.
Is that because he’s so focused on work, or is he just more interested in girlfriend No. 2? Merely from watching Startup.com, it’s impossible to say. The filmmakers’ insistence on a quick pace and a narrator-free cinéma vérité style muddies such details. Is Tuzman juggling multiple lovers? Is Herman divorced? The answers are (1) not exactly and (2) yesbut I didn’t learn either fact from watching the movie.
Tuzman’s personal life might not be important if govWorks.com had succeeded. But it didn’t, and so Startup.com ends up being mostly The Kaleil Isaza Tuzman Story. As such, the film has drawn very different responses. Some viewers consider the entrepreneur inspiring and heroic, but others have found him so dislikable that they enjoyed watching his venture become a dot-bomb. Failure to achieve his goal isn’t the only thing that separates Tuzman from The War Room’s protagonist, James Carville. Even if you don’t admire Carville or his most famous clientwho makes a cameo appearance herein The War Room, the campaign consultant came across as smart and funny, not merely manic. By comparison, Tuzman is one-dimensional, and that dimension is not very engaging. Hegedus and Noujaim seem to have mistaken Tuzman’s arrogance for genius. Credit the stock market for not making the same mistake. CP