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Jewish World Review May 29, 2001 / 7 Sivan 5761

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

Disney bombs Pearl Harbor -- If your idea of pleasure is watching Ben Affleck win the Battle of Britain, and then magically appear (in American uniform) at Pearl Harbor, just in time to woo Kate Beckinsale on Dec. 7, 1941, then this season's would-be blockbuster, Pearl Harbor, is for you.

While neither the horse-faced Mr. Affleck nor the luminous Miss Beckinsale are exactly top draws at the box office, the movie employs the same sort of special effects -- that is, big ships listing violently before sinking underwater -- that made Titanic such a huge success four years ago.

If, however, you tend to cringe at the way Hollywood treats, or rather mistreats, history, you might be well advised to stay away from this one. As with nearly every historical epic ever produced on film -- from Cecil B. DeMille to Oliver Stone -- Pearl Harbor is full of laughable howlers, startling solecisms, misconceptions, rank inventions and distortions. And for people like you, no star-crossed love affair or computer-generated graphic can compensate for the pain of seeing truth get yanked through the wringer.

Sometimes it's funny. When courageous Ben Affleck is leaving for England, clasping a sorrowful Kate Beckinsale in his arms, their emotional parting takes place at New York's Grand Central Station -- where, presumably, Mr. Affleck catches a trans-Atlantic train for London. U.S. Army nurses in Hawaii are depicted as lusty refugees from the Victoria's Secret catalogue, if such a thing had existed in the early 1940s. Then there's ignorance. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is played by Jon Voigt under several layers of plastic, is shown discussing with White House aides his predicament as a paraplegic -- something the real FDR would never have done -- and then displaying courage by rising defiantly (and unassisted) from his wheelchair -- something the real FDR was unable to do.

More troubling, however, is the movie's treatment of the politics of World War II. Pearl Harbor is produced by The Disney Company, which does a lot of business in Japan, and as every schoolboy knows, it was the Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor. The Disney Company wants to continue earning profits in Japan, and does not wish to offend what it perceives to be Japanese sensibilities. So the question of why the Japanese staged a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor -- in the middle of diplomatic negotiations with the United States -- is treated in, shall we say, cavalier fashion.

To its credit, the movie does not fall for the isolationist conspiracy theories that, to this day, argue that FDR concealed knowledge of the attack from the military commanders in Hawaii, thereby pushing a reluctant United States into war. But that is probably because the producers and writers are unaware of such arguments. Instead, the Japanese are shown to be reluctant warriors, sadly striking back at America because the United States had embargoed oil shipments to Japan, reducing its reserves to 18 months. The implication is that while the attack on Pearl Harbor was unexpected, and disastrous, it was not entirely unprovoked, or undeserved.

What is left unsaid in Pearl Harbor is the fact that oil shipments to Japan were cut off because, for the previous decade, Imperial Japan had been marauding Asia, invading China and Southeast Asia, enslaving Koreans, and perpetrating massacres and atrocities throughout the region. If The Disney Company worries about offending its business partner Japan Inc., it should ask Japan's Asian neighbors what they think about Japanese behavior during World War II.

One curious irony here is that, while contemporary Germany is just as much a friend and ally of America as Japan, the feelings of the Germans are seldom spared in portrayals of the Germans of World War II on stage and screen. When was the last time Hitler was shown invading Poland, more in sorrow than anger, because the Poles were mistreating ethnic Germans? Are our wartime allies the British deeply hurt when we gripe about George III, and set off fireworks on the Fourth of July?

Of course not. And the greatest irony is that the Japanese themselves are fully capable of facing the past. It is not today's democratic Japan that made war on China, or bombed Pearl Harbor, but a military dictatorship that bears no more resemblance to modern Japan than the Federal Republic of Germany looks like the Third Reich.

The idea that there was anything like moral equivalence between the United States and Japan in 1941 is not just misleading, but repugnant. Moreover, it insults the memory of those who died to defend the United States against tyranny, and those Japanese who labored so successfully to transform their country in the postwar years.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal