Every schoolchild ought to see "Pearl Harbor" with a grown-up who actually knows a little history (or who has at least read an occasional newspaper). Afterwards they could stop at the soda shoppe for a banana split or an egg cream and talk about what's wrong with the movie.
"Pearl Harbor" is a perfect film to illustrate the pernicious result of bad history, sloppy detail, Hollywood venality, bad direction, poor acting, and a script conceived in ignorance and enhanced only by pyrotechnics. There's no moral reference point. The Japanese militarists are canny rather than evil so it won't wound sensibilities in the No. 2 movie market for American movies.
The American flyboys who are meant to be the stars of "Pearl Harbor" are anachronisms, reflecting the narcissistic, simple-minded sentiments of Woody Allen: "The heart does what the heart has to do." The Sexual Revolution arrives (probably on the SS Titanic) two decades early.
"Pearl Harbor" was produced by Disney, but it deserves the appraisal of Shakespeare: "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Macbeth was talking about life, but a reviewer of "Pearl Harbor" might profitably borrow Macbeth's pearls.
Since "Pearl Harbor" is only a movie, why should anyone make a fuss? Why not just consider the source? Lots of reasons. Young people get more of their information from rock lyrics, MTV, videos and movies than from books or teachers, and we cheat them if they're not taught to distinguish between creative corn and accurate chronicle.
In one episode of the animated cartoon "The Wild Thornberries" on Nickelodeon cable, for another example, Debbie, age 16, can't get any of the history of American presidents until her mother suggests she sing the facts to the rhythms of rock and roll: "Jefferson, third president da da da da dada. ... Madison, fourth president and resident of the White House, da da da da da da da du." Alas, it ain't satire.
The grown-up at the soda shoppe (if the grown-up can actually find one) might begin by pointing out that the Japanese didn't bomb Pearl Harbor simply because the Americans were cutting off oil, as the movie suggests. Japan had been raping China since 1931 en route to making over all of Asia in the Japanese image, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor was more than just something to upset the thrill of a romance.
Jimmy Doolittle's raid on Japan four months later was depicted with more accuracy by Van Johnson and Spencer Tracy in the 1944 propaganda weeper "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" than in this summer blockbuster. Disney did get the nurses' lipstick right: the dark purple could have been Revlon's Ultra Violet.
Every generation prizes its touchstones with the historical urgency that make up life's indelible memories. Everyone who lived through World War II remembers exactly where he (or she) was when hearing the news from Pearl Harbor, in the way that Americans of later generations remembered where they heard the news of the Kennedy assassination, of the slaying of Martin Luther King, of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon (or that John Lennon had been shot).
But the passage of a mere decade relegates the most dramatic events to the dustbin of history. A man who remembers burning his draft card to protest the Vietnam War has to be careful about his conversation if he's courting a woman who barely remembers the Reagan years.
It's historically - and aesthetically - dishonest to show Franklin D. Roosevelt struggling to rise from his wheelchair to stand on paralyzed legs to make a point about avenging the "Japs." His great strength was in (begin ital) not (end ital) wanting to display his disability to the public (as politically incorrect as that may be in our enlightened times).
When Billy Joel sang "We Didn't Start the Fire," many teachers applauded the lyrics covering four decades of references to World War II, the Bay of Pigs, Communist China, Richard Nixon and Watergate - "the best teaching tool since Sesame Street." They weren't kidding, either.
George W. Bush signed on Memorial Day the legislation to erect a monument to the veterans of World War II on the Mall in Washington. "It is time," he said, "to give them the memorial they deserve. All we can do is remember, and appreciate the price that was paid for our own lives and for our own freedom." So true.
Remembering the sacrifice that began on Dec. 7, 1941 - "a date that will live in infamy" - is important for more than the debt we owe for that pearl of great price. It's important as well to preserve history against the threat of thieves like Disney.