Childhood best buddies Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) realize their dreams of flying high when they become pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. With the U.S. staying out of World War II Rafe volunteers for the British Royal Air Force leaving Navy nurse and girlfriend Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) behind to write gush-filled letters. Rafe flies in the face of death Evelyn and Danny are transferred to the "tranquil" military base at Pearl Harbor--and a love triangle is born. Across the Pacific Japanese Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto (Mako) is plotting the swift and strategic attack that will "awaken the sleeping giant" of the U.S. a plan that when executed rattles the country--from the Pearl Harbor residents to the White House--into action.
The three leads--Affleck Hartnett and Beckinsale--are adequate and photogenic enough for the epic love story but any star-making turns won't be based on acting skills. Or maybe it just seems that way because they've been upstaged by the veterans filling up supporting parts. Jon Voight does a hauntingly good Franklin D. Roosevelt; the underrated Cuba Gooding Jr. exudes more Men of Honor nobility as Dorie Miller a mess attendant who received the Navy Cross for shooting down Japanese aircraft during the attack. And Alec Baldwin Tom Sizemore and Dan Aykroyd lend weight to every scene they're in. Maybe it's a script issue but Affleck merely shuffles in the acting depths he troweled in Bounce. But points go to the understated Beckinsale for keeping the melo out of melodramatic something Charlize Theron (who turned down the role) wouldn't have been able to pull off.
The filmmakers would like you to know that this isn't typical action fare yet they've still created the most spectacular action scene in recent memory. The 40-minute-long Pearl Harbor attack is at once emotional and visually awesome eschewing excessive slow-mo and shaky cameras to let the horror speak for itself. Unfortunately Titanic and Top Gun came out first so déjà vu disrupts tragic shots of the battle aftermath and "rebel" flying stunts. The film's rush to show the attack abbreviates the love story so much it feels like the express-lane version. (Rafe's return gives Evelyn like two seconds to be stunned before torpedoes start flying.) Then again maybe that was the point. And while the Japanese enemies get a more sympathetic treatment misrepresenting Pearl Harbor's victims as glaringly white (when in fact Japanese-Americans and native Hawaiians made up a good portion of the casualties) doesn't help break down racial stereotypes.