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Ben Affleck goes through the hell of war and learns to respect history in Pearl Harbor. Jenny Cooney Carrillo reports.

Ben Affleck says he doesnít care whether Pearl Harbor is a commercial hit. Heís more concerned about getting the stamp of approval from the real Pearl Harbor survivors, who were in attendance at the US$5 million premiere aboard a $3.5 billion aircraft carrier, anchored in Pearl Harbor just a few hundred feet from the Arizona memorial where 1177 souls still lie beneath the sea trapped inside one of the ships bombed by the Japanese on December 7, 1941.

Pearl Harbor is an epic love story that follows two daring young pilots, Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), who grew up like brothers and became pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps, where they also fell in love with the same woman (Kate Beckinsale) shortly before all hell broke loose on that fateful day which marked the United Stateís entry into World War II.

Since you are too young to have firsthand knowledge of Pearl Harbor, what did you learn during the making of this film?
One of the things I learned was a greater appreciation for that generation. My grandparents fought in the Second World War - a huge conflict on six continents where 50 million people died. I learned to appreciate how terrible, how truly awful and savage war is, and to hope that weíd never have to fight one again. I was humbled quite a bit and I learned to have greater respect for history; the history of this country and the rest of the world actually.

I heard you deferred your entire salary so this movie could be made for US$130 million.
It wasnít just me who deferred my salary but many of the key crewmembers also took a salary cut and Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer deferred everything to the back end. We understood this movie was about something substantial and we wanted it to resonate and be significant. Now we have the means in Hollywood and the technology to show what it might have been like fighting a war but that doesnít come cheap, so we all agreed to do it this way because we wanted to be involved in a movie we were proud of.

I also heard that you didnít care about whether the movie made money as long as the veterans felt you had done them justice.
When you do a movie you hope itís well received and hope it makes money and of course you have all these sets of ambitions for it. But in this particular case what I meant to suggest was that I had another set of ambitions as well, which took a higher priority. If I had to choose between having a movie that World War II veterans felt disgraced by that was a commercial success or having a movie that was a commercial failure and one which made the veterans proud and which was considered to be a legitimate piece of historical story-telling, I would choose the latter.

You spoke to a lot of Pearl Harbor survivors during your research. Did any of their stories particularly stand out?
I heard so many different stories. I did speak to one gentleman who bore witness to the men who stayed in formation, standing at attention while the Star Spangled Banner was playing while they were under attack and who didnít break out of formation until the song was finished. Iíve always thought that was something of an apocryphal story but that gentleman verified it for me. Most of the stories left me with the impression of all-out reverence and respect and a sense that I could never really know what it would be like to be in a war zone unless youíve been there.

This movie is personal for you in many ways, isnít it?
Iím fortunate to have sort of three grandfathers who I knew as a child because there was a divorce in my family very early in one of my parentís lives so I had two families and all three served in the United States military during the war. Two of them served in the Pacific, one of them was a captain in the Marine Corps and in fact came through Pearl Harbor on his way to engage in infantry combat in the islands. I found that like my grandfathers, many veterans to this day are still very upset and disturbed by what happened and they are very reluctant to talk about it. I didnít feel it was appropriate for me to try to push people into discussing it but it played a role for me in the sense that my own family history was further inspiration and hit home very closely. It made me realize how valuable that generation of people is. Some of them are getting to their nineties and they estimate around 30,000 World War II veterans are dying of old age every month, so it is important to me that we tell this story now, at a time when we can have some of these folks see it and be recognized for their contribution to history.

What do you think of the comparison sometimes made of this film with Titanic?
I donít really believe in comparing movies but Iím sure Michael Bay would admit that he is a huge James Cameron fan and he emulates him in some ways. He was an enormous fan of Titanic and there is a similarity of a fictional love story set against a story rooted in the history of tragedy. I really donít think the movies have much more in common than that but I sure would like to win all those Oscars and get all that money at the box-office (laughs)!

You played a fighter pilot. How are your flying skills?
I had the opportunity to fly in a number of vintage aircraft Ė the B40 and B52 and it was a pretty extraordinary experience. In preparation for the role, I took some flying lessons and had to do some aerobatics and learn some combat maneuvers because I didnít want it to seem hokey or fake for an actor to sit there and do it in a way that you would never fly an aircraft. While I got into aerobatics, I did get sort of nauseous after a while. I donít think I quite had the stomach to be a real pilot. You donít realize that the G-force accumulates rapidly when those planes go spinning and rotating and flying and turning and you get very disoriented and it really makes you sick. At least it made me sick. Maybe Iím just a big wimp!

How important is it to you that this film be historically accurate?
There is a fine line you walk and itís important. You need to be historically accurate to a certain degree but for one thing, you can never know exactly what the historical events were precisely, for many reasons; even eyewitness accounts differ. There are fundamental things that we understand and know to be true and those need to be adhered to and represented accurately. But thereís also ways of telling truths in history by using things that may or may not have happened. There were kids in the playground when the Japanese planes flew over. Whether or not they were playing baseball or basketball or hopscotch, nobody seems to know or remember and Michael took creative license to put a baseball bat in the kidís hand. I donít think that is irresponsible but I think there are ways you can fudge the truth, which can be. In my opinion, we didnít do that in this movie.

In the film your character is in love with the same girl as his best friend. Do you and Matt Damon ever have that problem?
I think we have a pretty standard guy code, which I imagine extends past my friendship with him. Itís a sort of Ďfinders keepersí thing Ė possession being nine-tenths of the law and all that (laughs). I think once your friend dates a woman, the statute of limitations doesnít really run out on that. It probably would hurt your feelings to have your best friend pick up right where you left off so we understand that and have never had to deal with the particular issue the characters deal with in the movie.

Published June 7, 2001

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