“Pearl Harbor” is a movie you just couldn’t avoid. I must have seen the trailer fifty times; fortunately, it’s one of the best crafted ones I’ve ever seen, so it never bored me. What came out of these few minutes I’ve seen over and over is the very dramatic speech made by President Roosevelt (played by Jon Voight), Hans Zimmer‘s powerful score (in spite or because of the fact that he’s plagiarizing his own “The Thin Red Line” music) and plenty of the kind of striking visuals director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer have used us too. What was less obvious, but which was widely known if you frequent movie websites, is that the movie’s entry point into this historical events is a love story, just like in “Titanic”. Well, try as he might, Bay will never be James Cameron, but for all of its shortcomings, “Pearl Harbor” remains as satisfying as summer blockbusters get. This one won’t win any Oscars (besides some well deserved sound, editing or special effects awards), but it’s a genuine crowd pleaser that will earn a whole lot of dough.

The movie starts in 1920s Tennessee as cocksure farm boy Rafe (Ben Affleck) and his less self-confident best friend Danny (Josh Hartnett) play at being combat pilots. Cut to 1941, the two are now lieutenants in the US Army, doing what they’ve dreamed of doings since they were kids… Except that all they do is train, even though war is raging in Europe. The Americans have yet to get involved in a massive way. Maybe because much of the people think it’s not their problem. Rafe, though, can’t wait to get some real combat experience, and he volunteers to go fight in occupied France with the British Air Force, leaving behind Danny and his girlfriend Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), an army nurse. Complications ensue when the two of them, both working in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor, start getting the hots for each other as Rafe’s absence grows longer… Meanwhile, in Japan, troops are preparing a surprise attack on the Americans’ Pacific base…

There’s more to the film, but I won’t spoil its surprises. The screenplay was written by Randall Wallace, best known for writing “Braveheart”. Like that film, “Pearl Harbor” holds many contradictions. It’s both idealistic and ruthless, based on real events but very free in its interpretation, and it strives to please both regular moviegoers and critics. Plus, depending on one’s perception, both movies will seem either manipulative or just effective filmmaking. I fall in the latter category. Sure, some twists are forced (I didn’t buy the way the love triangle was set up nor how it was resolved), but for the most part, the movie worked me like a puppet. I laughed, I cried, I shuddered, I was thrilled… The works, basically.

“Pearl Harbor” goes on for three hours, but it didn’t feel long to me. I enjoyed Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett quite a bit, Kate Beckinsale much less ; she ain’t my type I guess. Or maybe it’s because we never get to understand her motives all that much. The movie starts by going through her affair with Affleck’s character, from their meet-cute in a military hospital where she pricks his butt to teary goodbyes as Rafe leaves for Europe. That part I liked, it was sweet, but then something “happens” which I won’t reveal and we get one of those annoying “Three Months Later” title cards and all of the sudden Evelyn is growing lonely and she starts spending time with Danny… Again, these scenes are cute, and Hartnett has charm, but I never got to like Beckinsale or what she did.

Still, the film’s first hour is surprisingly engrossing. Then comes the movie’s big set piece, the half hour long Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor. Well, you’ve seen the trailer, but still: whoa! You gotta give it to Michael Bay, he shoots some badass destruction! Countless “Zero planes” filling the skies, bombing ships and bases, men running for their lives or being blown to pieces, more explosions, mucho shooting… All executed with a true sense of action, unlike some of Bay’s other movies. In “Armageddon” or “The Rock”, I sometimes felt that everything was edited too hysterically, but here the rhythm felt right. Bay doesn’t keep cutting back and forth, instead he holds long, impressive shots. Some might complain that while watching a re-enactment of “a day which will live in infamy”, the audience shouldn’t be going “oh man! how did they do that?” but being shocked by the horror of war. It’s a good point, but I think you can have it both ways. I cringed every time men and women were shot down or blown up, but I still appreciated Bay’s visual skills.

If this were my movie, I would have ended it soon after the big attack. It’s like, how can you top that, why not leave on a high note? The last act of the movie isn’t all that bad, but it’s just kind of underwhelming to go from such a powerful sequence to what mostly adds up to a “Top Gun” retread. And I don’t even like “Top Gun”! I always found aerial dogfights quite boring. They can be exciting for a little while, but then it’s just planes flying here and there and close-up shots of the pilots’ masked faces. Yawn. I’ll give it to Alec Baldwin, who plays an important part in the film’s climax as the colonel leading the American counterattack on Tokyo, he makes his shlocky dialogue sound good and gives the subsequent mission scene some momentum. Voight is also pretty good as the President, despite the ridiculous scene in which he gets up from his wheelchair. Other supporting characters include Tom Sizemore as an officer who does little more than shoot at planes, Cuba Gooding Jr. who shoots at planes, boxes and kisses up to whitey (someone alert Spike Lee!) and, of all people, Dan Aykroyd as a code breaker.

I’ve been reading through some of my colleagues’ reviews, and most of them pan the film. Bad dialogue, corny romance, self-gratifying action scenes, iffy historical accuracy… All that might be true, but I believe that within the right mindset, the movie manages to be a success. It’s not “Saving Private Ryan”, but I’m glad it isn’t. “Pearl Harbor” is an old-fashioned stab at melodramatic romance and World War II heroics. It’s not the Learning Channel, it’s a variation on real events as they would happen in Bruckheimer’s world, with pretty nurses in fashionable bikinis making out on the beach and hunky pilots flying through golden skies.