Bitch all you want about Pearl Harbor being nothing more than forty minutes of showoff stunts padded with more than two hours of a love story that exceeds all known tolerance levels for sappiness. Call it Pearl Slobber, or nail it as bogus history, as a Titanic wanna-be, as a gamer’s fantasy of war. From its opening calendar-art sunrise to the “There You’ll Be” love theme that Faith Hill sings over the final credits, Pearl Harbor is deep-down phony.
To producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay, who grossed $550 million worldwide on their last collaboration, the appalling Armageddon, those put-downs don’t spell defeat — they add up to major box office. Never mind that the Japanese surprise attack on the Hawaiian military base at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, took the lives of more than 3,500 soldiers and civilians and sped America’s entry into World War II. As Bay says, “Historians have to understand that we are making a movie here.”
Well, then. Bay has learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. The trailer’s now-infamous point-of-view shot of a bomb about to crash through the decks of the USS Arizona tips the film’s hand. The way Bay shoots it, that bomb damn near rivals the size of the asteroid headed for Earth in Armageddon (“It’s the size of Texas, Mr. President”). Last summer, we all lined up to watch a giant wave sink a fishing boat in The Perfect Storm. This summer, the bomb is the big draw. Bay and Bruckheimer have turned a real-life tragedy into a carnival attraction. Step right up, folks, and watch carnage that’s suitable for framing. Bombs, torpedoes, destroyers, war planes and other weapons of destruction are fetishized with the skill the younger Bay brought to his commercials for Nike and Miller beer as well as his award-winning “Got Milk” spot. It’s disturbing that the flavor of the period is better captured in the poster art on this page than in the film itself, which has a glam, sham, lollipop brightness. You don’t know whether to watch this movie or lick it.
Until now, Bay and Bruckheimer have confined themselves to popcorn fictions such as Bad Boys, The Rock and Armageddon. With Pearl Harbor, they’re trying to pass off shoddy goods as history and get a piece of the Oscar pie that’s been feeding the ego of Titanic director James Cameron. But the jingoistic bombast in the Pearl Harbor script, by Randall Wallace (yes, he wrote Braveheart, but he also perpetrated The Man in the Iron Mask), is laid on so thick, even Academy members should wise up to the con job.
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“Let’s play chicken with those Jap bastards,” says flyboy Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) to flyboy Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) as they climb into their cockpits, wearing hula shirts, to take down a few enemy planes. That dogfight comes midway in the film, after audiences have endured a painfully attenuated setup involving the friendship of Rafe and Danny as Tennessee farm kids, circa 1923.
Cut to June 1941. Rafe and Danny sign up to fly for Uncle Sam. At the induction center, the bare-assed boys get inoculated by hubba-hubba nurses. Rafe is so attracted to nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) that he lets her stick a needle in his butt twice. It must be love, because Rafe won’t have sex with Evelyn before he ships out to join England’s pilot warriors. He wants to wait — a kiss of death in Hollywood movies. Sure enough, Rafe is reported missing in action. Back at Pearl Harbor, Danny and Evelyn comfort each other over losing Rafe, the comfort level extending to having PG-13-rated sex in a hangar where parachutes billow alluringly. The scene rivals the memorably nutso Armageddon coupling of Affleck, Liv Tyler and animal crackers. Then Rafe returns from the dead. Natch.
Affleck, Hartnett and Beckinsale — a British actress without a single worthy line to wrap her credible American accent around — are attractive actors, but they can’t animate this moldy romantic triangle. Hartnett, who underplays deftly, nabs the few crumbs worth stealing. And what’s with the heavy lipstick and makeup on the nurses? They look like they’re in a fashion spread on hospital hookers. Model James King has a lively minute or two as Betty, the babe nurse who falls for a stuttering soldier (Ewen Bremner of Trainspotting). But the young cast is mostly pinup packaging.
The more seasoned actors, portraying actual historical figures, seize the best chances for hamming. Jon Voight, unrecognizable under layers of latex, plays Franklin Roosevelt, the polio-stricken president who is confined to his wheelchair. It’s exciting to watch FDR stir his Cabinet by rising to his feet. Never happened. But this being a Michael Bay film, it does now. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Dorie Miller, the Navy cook and boxer on the USS West Virginia who has a brief moment of glory behind an anti-aircraft gun. And Mako, the veteran Japanese actor, conveys dignity and resolve as Yamamoto, the Harvard-educated admiral who engineered the Pearl Harbor attack, only to fear correctly that he had awakened “a sleeping giant.” Bay avoids the usual racial caricatures of the time, but his attempts to show fairness to the Japanese side are mostly lip service. It’s Alec Baldwin, pouring on the patriotic rah-rah as Col. Jimmy Doolittle, who serves as the movie’s mouthpiece. Doolittle, a symbol of the Greatest Generation to which Bay’s film pays tribute, is the aviation ace who led the retaliatory raid on Tokyo in 1942, a suicide mission that turned the course of the war and serves as the climax of the film.
There is no denying Bay and Bruckheimer their due as showmen. They can marshal Hollywood know-how and digital dazzle to fire on all cylinders. But the drama produces no resonance, despite Hans Zimmer’s swelling, bullying score. The film has no soul. The politics of Pearl Harbor, from military unpreparedness to the hunger for war from the White House, were relayed more cogently in 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora!, an ambitious but inert film that tells the story from both the American and Japanese sides. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa once thought of doing Tora! Tora! Tora!, but he bowed out, to the film’s detriment. The subject demands an artist unafraid of deeper, dangerous currents. Bay and Bruckheimer stick to the shallows. The film’s set pieces echo other, better movies, notably Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. And you can’t watch the drowning soldiers hanging onto the capsized USS Oklahoma without seeing Titanic and its ocean of death. Pearl Harbor lacks the gravity of those films. It’s always on to the next crowd-pleasing rush or the next Hallmark moment that sets pretty lovers against a painted sky. An epic about this day of infamy should shake you to the core. But the real infamy about Pearl Harbor is that when you exit, you don’t feel a thing.