May 25, 2001 -- NEW YORK (ABCNEWS.com) — A massive ship is sinking, sailors are clinging to the decks for their lives. But it's not Titanic. Hollywood's latest historical disaster epic is Pearl Harbor — and Ben Affleck is the farm-boy-turned-flyboy there to save the day.
Hollywood hasn't taken on the Japanese surprise attack on Hawaii in more than 30 years. Certainly, schoolchildren still memorize the date Dec. 7, 1941. But younger audiences may very well be just as shocked as the country was back then when they see the skies darken with Japanese fighter planes and the bombs ripping through the Navy base.
"It made me proud to be involved in a movie that was going to try to show some of the gratitude that we owe as a nation to that generation of Americans," Affleck told ABCNEWS.com at the film's premiere in Hawaii.
Disney's $135 million war movie opens nationwide today. (Mr. Showbiz and ABCNEWS.com are owned by the Walt Disney Company.)
Boot Camp, Research as Preparation
To add gritty realism, producer Jerry Bruckheimer put the actors through an Army-like boot camp. Veterans were on hand to make sure the story was told correctly.
Bruckheimer, however, faced the challenge of remaining faithful to U.S. history while mixing in classic elements of big-screen heroism and romance. Many of the characters portrayed in the film are real-life heroes, such as Alec Baldwin's Maj. Doolittle, who led the counterattack on Tokyo shortly after the Pearl Harbor assault.
Affleck brings a fictional character to life in Rafe Macawley, a crack pilot who joins the Army with his childhood buddy Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett). During basic training, he falls in love with a nurse (Kate Beckinsale).
As an actor, he found himself understanding their struggles while researching the role. "One of the most gripping and affecting moments for me, emotionally, was … visiting the [USS] Arizona memorial, and that affected me," said Affleck. "That gave me a sense of place and history, and a real sense of humility."
Hartnett found some humility during their five days of boot camp: "You run, like, a thousand miles, come back and do, like, a billion push-ups and a billion sit-ups. They push you until you can't move, literally."
His personal exposure to war stories previously came from family members, including his great-uncle. "He was at D-Day, and all the way through the front lines until the Battle of the Bulge," Hartnett says.
And yet Hartnett was still struck by what he heard from other vets in preparation for Pearl Harbor:
"The most important thing that I think I got from them was the fact that after 60 years, they still cried when they talked about what happened to them."
Affleck says the soldiers impressed upon him the importance of this film: "The only real message I got from those guys, and they're men of few words, most of the men of that generation, was that they wanted their story told; they want it told well."
Affleck Not 'Man Enough' for Military?
The film re-creates the sinking of the USS Arizona in a dazzling and lengthy sequence. When the ship went down, hundreds of men were trapped in the hull and slowly drowned as rescuers tried in vain to burrow through the armor plating. In the film, as the ocean swallows the wreckage, the doomed sailors poke their hands out but are unable to escape.
"Once you've kind of had your first couple of days and you see how enormous the crew is and how enormous the amount of extras are, and what incredible actors you're working with, you then really have to forget that you're in this big movie and you just play the part," said co-star Beckinsale.
Since Vietnam, Americans haven't been pressed into service at a time of war. For a youngster like Affleck, that's cause to pause.
"I don't know if I'm man enough for this military," said Affleck. "But after all the exposure I've had now, I feel I'm pretty well trained anyway. Maybe I could work on the flight deck here."