Pearl Harbor wants to be Titanic meets Top Gun by way of Armageddon. It’s from the same schlockmeister producer-director team of Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay responsible for Armageddon (along with The Rock and Bad Boys). Bruckheimer also produced Top Gun. No one involved had anything to do with Titanic, but by gum, they wish they had.
It’s depressing to think that this bloated, shallow, hollow spectacle will probably make more money this holiday weekend than a solid, gripping historical thriller like Thirteen Days made in its entire run. Thirteen Days was about the Cuban missile crisis, in a sense that Pearl Harbor is not about Pearl Harbor. In this movie, Pearl Harbor merely provides a tragic backdrop for a banal love-triangle story, just as the Titanic disaster was the backdrop for James Cameron’s story of Rose and Jack and the rich fiancé. (Coincidentally, both films feature two men vying for a British actress named Kate who’s playing an American.)
Yet whereas Titanic was the work of a master manipulator, a man with a special genius for making cheesy melodrama seem moving and gripping, Michael Bay has so far in his career shown no competence for anything but pyrotechnics. Cameron’s film shrewdly focused on its three leads (Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Billy Zane), all of whom are gifted with real charisma and screen presence. Pearl Harbor, however, is burdened by a sprawling cast of characters, led by Ben Affleck (another Armageddon alum), who’s as blandly generic as no-name corn flakes — and doesn’t even compensate by taking likable roles. Affleck’s out-acted by relative unknown Josh Hartnett (Blow Dry), the best friend and romantic rival (even though Hartnett’s character is equally underwritten); he’ll be opening movies himself before long.
Another thing about Titanic was that, even though it wasn’t actually about the historical event it was bound up with, like Thirteen Days it did take the time to explain exactly what was going on in the background. It gave its viewers real insight into what they were watching. Watching Cameron’s film, you had the feeling that, even though he was principally concerned with his melodramatic love story, on a fundamental level he took seriously the events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic; he had a level of interest in and respect for his source material.
By contrast, Pearl Harbor is essentially a historical cartoon, a bit of fluff that neither much knows nor cares about the context of the events of December 7, 1941. Viewers unfamiliar with those events will learn little, for example, of Japan’s motives, or of the logistical details of the attack, or even of the irrevocable effect it had on the American psyche. (For a cinematic take on Pearl Harbor that’s as informative as it is engrossing, see the 1970 American-Japanese co-production Tora! Tora! Tora!, a film for which I hope to write a review soon.)
Ultimately, Pearl Harbor is about as interested in history as other summer blockbusters like Braveheart or The Patriot. The great difference, of course, is that the events in this film are still living memory, and virtually sacred to the survivors. We all know Braveheart plays fast and loose with history, but that history is so remote that it’s essentially irrelevant to most of us, at least as regards our enjoyment of the film. King Edward I is less real to me than King Arthur or Robin Hood. The Revolutionary War, on the other hand, is to me more immediate, "real" history, and the cartoony liberties of The Patriot are accordingly more problematic. Cornwallis was a real person, and the apocryphal atrocities carried out in the film under his command stand out to me as cheap manipulation. Of course, I guess that’s as much a reflection of my education and interests as anything else. To some people, doubtless, Edward I is as real as Cornwallis, while to others Cornwallis is as remote as Edward I.
But World War II? That’s still living memory. Isn’t it? Or is it already so lost in the mists of time that mass audiences will accept the Armageddoning of Pearl Harbor? Alas.
Thus, for example, we get a line in which a character says in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack, "I think World War II just started" — conveniently overlooking the fact that (a) at that point no one had ever heard of anything called "World War I" yet (only something called "the Great War"), and (b) by this time the war that would later be known as World War II had already been going on for some time. (I was reminded of a scene in The Patriot where a character says, "It’s a free country… or at least it will be.") In another scene, an officer informed of something that occurred at "0723 hours" blurts "That’s 7:20," as if military time were a sort of code that personnel were always having to mentally translate. And don’t even get me started on the ridiculous scene where FDR (Jon Voight, who alone rises above this dreck) determinedly stands up unaided out of his wheelchair in order to show his advisors that, darn it, we Americans can do anything we put our minds to.
If Pearl Harbor’s creators show only a cursory interest in history or authenticity, they’ve paid obsessive attention to detail when it comes to demographics. They have crafted a movie meticulously designed for an appeal as broad as it is shallow. The film’s centerpiece is a state-of-the-art CGI-aided action orgy of the sort that draws in male moviegoers, but its heart is the love triangle of attractive stars deemed necessary to attract female viewers. And both the violence and the sex are shrewdly edited to a hairsbreadth of an "R" rating, allowing for the "PG-13" that opens the film to the all-important teenage audience.
For American audiences, as in many Bruckheimer productions, there is shameless flag-waving, with embarrassingly jingoistic scenes depicting seasoned British officers and Japanese gushing over the fearsome might of the dozing American military. ("A lot of people frown on the Yanks for not being in this war yet," a British commander tells Affleck. "I just want to say, if there are many more back in America like you… God help anyone who goes to war with America.") At the same time, though, Pearl Harbor scrupulously avoids uncomplimentary depictions of the Japanese, who are today one of Hollywood’s most important overseas markets. (Just to make sure, the Japanese version of the film will omit a couple of American references to "Jap bastards.")
In fact, the film consistently makes inoffensive, politically correct decisions: No one smokes in this World War II picture (there are no cigarettes at all, and, while "victory cigars" are passed out in anticipation of an operation, they are never smoked); and the outcome of a boxing match between a black cook (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) and a white mechanic is hardly suspenseful. (On the other hand, a highly cinematic moment when that same black cook, Dorie Miller, leaps to the defense and shoots down two Japanese planes is actually historical.)
What about the depiction of the attack on Pearl Harbor itself? Yes, the pyrotechnics are impressive, but my feeling is that by now special effects have come so far that the time may have come for critics and audiences to stop giving movies points just for looking convincing. That may have been appropriate only a few years ago (say, circa Jurassic Park or Terminator 2), but not any more.
True, there’s still lots of cheaply made, bad-looking product out there; but the mere fact that some studio head allocated $100 million more to one production rather than another is no reason in itself to give credit to the finished product. If they can’t be bothered to give us a worthwhile story, or at least pictures on the screen that are worth looking at for some reason other than faux realism — for the imaginative force of the imagery, or at least for sheer directorial style — then in my book the movie is a failure.
The big attack scene in Pearl Harbor features 40 minutes of repetitious shots of torpedoes entering the water (by my count there were four different underwater shots of the torpedo breaking the surface), low-flying planes hurtling between buildings, bullets hissing through the water as men try to swim to safety, and even an over-the-top computer sequence with the camera riding a bomb from an airplane down to its target.
These scenes are intercut with hospital sequences with panicked nurses wading through the sea of wounded. One nurse, heroine Kate Beckinsale, whips off her stocking to make a tourniquet (nothing else handy in a hospital?), and then we get a close-up on her unscrewing her lipstick to mark victims for lifesaving measures or comfort care. Even when the bombs start raining down, the nurses remain sex objects.
I don’t know if any director could make this kind of intense battle imagery work for 40 minutes. Steven Spielberg, in the famous opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, wisely quit after about 20 minutes. Bay, however, doesn’t succeed for more than a few seconds at a time. (I did like an underwater shot of soldiers treading water as missiles pass under their feet.) It is worth noting that he does improve on Armageddon in one important respect: At least here you can see what’s going on. But that’s not saying much. Pearl Harbor is 40 minutes of pointless chaos, bookended by an even more pointless love story.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.