the fathers of the baby boom-ers are dying, and their sons are paying tribute to them. That's why Steven Spielberg made Saving Private Ryan and Tom Brokaw wrote a best-selling book about American soldiers. And it explains why Hollywood has made Pearl Harbor. If we're fortunate, we grow up thinking our fathers are heroes, and as they age, bend and shrink, we remember them as their taller, straighter and braver selves.
My father is 88 and lives in a nursing home, yet I have an image of him as the steadfast, determined young man in a photo taken of him during the war, when he fought for the Finnish army. I understand the need of writers and filmmakers, most of whom never experienced war, to capture what they see as their fathers' shining hour.
Unlike the Vietnam War, which divided America, the second world war had a noble cause -- to stop Hitler. And the soldiers who served in it emerged as unblemished heroes, with no My Lai massacre to answer for. Instead, we imagine them storming the beaches at Normandy, liberating concentration camps and raising the stars and stripes on Iwo Jima.
It's a rousing, uncomplicated image, and when it's transferred to the movies, it makes for a narrow vision of the hero soldier. He becomes less a character than an icon, which can lead to deadly boring cinema.
Compare the confused and divided Vietnam anti-hero with the straight-shooting he-man of the second world war. The drama in a Vietnam film comes from his inner conflicts and the battles he wages among those with whom he's serving. Not only does he question the morality of his role in the war, but he also fights evil within his own ranks.
In Platoon, the emaciated, Jesus-like Willem Dafoe clashes with the dark-hearted Tom Berenger for the soul of Charlie Sheen. Casualities Of War's ethical Michael J. Fox becomes a target for murderous Sean Penn, and Full Metal Jacket's Matthew Modine as the cocky everyman recognizes the insanity of war in the faces of his fellow soldiers. These characters, like the body politic back home, are being pulled apart at the seams.
In a WW II movie, there's much more of the John Wayne, Cliff Robertson, Tom Hanks persona, the hero who may question his own ability to lead but never the sanity or morality of those at his side.
In modern-day throwback Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks asks himself, "Am I capable of completing this mission?" and then, "Have I done enough for my men?" It's all about measuring up to an implicit standard -- it's about self-sacrifice.
The male version of the woman's weepy, the WW II movie is a melodrama in which men die for country and kin the same way women in 40s and 50s dramas sacrifice their personal happiness for their loved ones. They belong to the same others-will-benefit-from-my-unselfish-act genre.
Pearl Harbor, opening Friday (May 25) melds the WWII war movie and the weepy. It's a love story -- a romantic triangle between Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale and Josh Hartnett -- set against a big action and special-effects extravaganza about the Japanese attack that brought America into the war.
The two pilots (Affleck and Hartnett) risk both love and limb for the greater good, providing major crossover appeal. The filmmakers hope women, who notoriously stay away from war flicks, will pony up to see a grand love story, while they guys will get their fill of bomb-dropping action.
It'll be huge.