Pearl Harbor
review by KJ Doughton, 25 May 2001

Remember the little anti-bootlegging slogan, "Home Taping Is Killing Music," that used to brand record covers? For movies like Pearl Harbor, a statement in the credits such as, "Director Michael Bay Is Killing Film," would be a welcome public service. Bay is a one-time music video and television commercial director who has taken the montage-heavy, headache-inducing styles of those mediums and applied it like a wrecking ball to such past popcorn hits as Armageddon, The Rock, and Bad Boys.

His films jerk you around with fast cuts, slick stunts, recycled dialogue, and an all-style, no-substance gloss that coats them like snot. Meanwhile, his attempts at characterization have all the layering, nuance, and dynamics of an Idaho spud field. Pearl Harbor is the kind of movie where a lover sent abroad to fight a war scribbles home ditties to his sweetie like, "Itís cold here, but I find warmth thinking of you." Itís the kind of movie where two military leaders argue with dopey exchanges like the following:

"If I were the Japanese, this is what Iíd do."

"Well, thatís not exactly hard evidence, is it?"

Itís the kind of celluloid drivel where an experienced fighter pilot tells a cocky, young trainee, "You remind me of myself fifteen years ago." Itís the kind of painfully derivative wordfest where a dyslexic soldier having his vision tested by a military nurse declares "I mix up my letters sometimes, and might never be an English teacher, but you donít dogfight with manuals!" It has the familiar image and rapport of a swaggering military upstart brown-nosing an admiring superior, before being told, "Flyboy, thatís bullshit. But itís good bullshit."

Pearl Harbor is bullshit. And itís not good bullshit.

Ben Affleck plays Rafe McCawley, a young whippersnapper growing up on his dadís Tennessee farm, in Pearl Harborís opening scenes. Rafe horses around in a cropdusting plane with abused neighbor boy Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), fantasizing that heís a badass war pilot shooting down those "nasty Germans." Bay serves up overbearing music and lovingly shot panoramas of golden wheatfields typically reserved for SUV, cigarette, and life insurance advertisements. The Marlboro Man would be right at home in this idealized land where people run in slow motion and appear in soft focus.

A few frames later, the two pals have grown up, joined the air force, and risen to the top of the fighter jock heap, Top Gun style. Itís 1941, when the military would apparently let two teenagers like Rafe and Danny aim expensive aircrafts at each other, "chicken"-style, during a mid-air practice flight, before veering off at the last millisecond to avoid a collision. Meanwhile, their admiring peers applaud such daring. These guys have cajones! Alec Baldwinís Commander Jimmy Doolittle is less impressed. "Thatís not training," he chastizes. "Itís a stunt. You guys are reckless and irresponsible." It goes without saying that Baldwinís military brass will take Rafe under his wing, secretly won over by the youngsterís fearless enthusiasm. This guyís got cajones! Itís not long before Doolittle requests that Rafe assist the English in the escalating overseas fight against Germany. Before his departure, however, Affleckís air ace is wooing a military nurse named Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale). Although he flunks a vision test on account of some pesky dyslexia which he fears will jeopardize his eligibility to fly into battle, sympathetic Evelyn takes pity on the lovable hunk and passes him. "My father was a pilot," she says. "Iíve seen what happens when pilots lose their wings." Besides, this guyís got cajones!

Until this point, Pearl Harbor is an entertaining hodgepodge of war cliches. Thereís a clever bit involving air force recruits hoping to "get lucky" with their dates by rubbing clove oil on their eyes to induce sympathy-getting crocodile tears. "If I were to go to war tomorrow," says a weeping fighter jock to his date, "Iíd want to remember back to this special time together." Touched by this phony emotional disclosure, she promises, "Tonight Iím yours." Less amusing are long, sluggish scenes of Rafe and Evelyn pondering the future with the following gag-inducing foreplay:

"Whatís gonna become of us, Rafe?"

"Well, the future isnít exactly in our hands, is it?"

Not since Affleck courted a bikini-clad Liv Tyler in Armageddon by sliding animal crackers across her exposed midriff has there been such a schmaltzy cringefest of teenybopper-friendly romance. But wait Ė wasnít Armageddon the last movie that Michael Bay directed?

It gets worse. Rafe is shot down during his fighting foray with The British Eagles, and thought to be dead. After mourning the brave soul, what is a best friend like Danny to do but bed his old mateís girlfriend? Pretty soon, Evelyn is won over by Dannyís charms, and lets him deflower her in what appears to be a parachute storage shed. With silky, curtain-like chutes whipping in the wind like something out of a Victoriaís Secret commercial, the two bland lovers get it on with such bloodless, calculated detachment that they make porn performers look sincere by comparison.

Itís no stretch of the imagination to figure out that Rafe is still alive, having been picked up by a French fishing boat in occupied territory and unable to get word of his survival back to the home front. Predictably, the long-missing soldier trades punches with Danny in a bar after finding out that the woman-stealer has impregnated Evelyn. "Rafe, youíre the only family I got," pleads Danny. "When you left, I was never so lonely." Male bonding and forgiveness ensue, just as Japanese planes are gearing up to pelt Hawaii with bombs and bullets.

And what of the movieís centerpiece battle, a spectacle alleged to have brought Pearl Harborís budget beyond the $120 million mark? Unbelievably, the filmís recreation of December 7, 1941, in which Japanese submarines and carrier-based planes attacked the U.S. Pacific fleets, is so impersonal and unfocused that it had this reviewer nodding off. Bay attempts to pull off the same sense of dramatic urgency that Steven Spielberg mastered in Saving Private Ryan, or James Cameron aced with Titanic, both of which tackled similar historical tragedies but stamped them with a passionate, visionary touch. In attempting to depict the fight that demolished eight American battleships, destroyed 200 American planes, and killed or wounded 3,000 military personnel, Bay gives us nothing more than an onscreen video game. You might marvel at all the money up there making things blow up real good, but itís doubtful that youíll become emotionally involved with any of it.

The acting is wooden, but itís no fault of the talents involved here. Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who always makes sure his movies look great, even if they flunk every other test of good cinema, have pulled together an attractive trio of leads to pull teenagers through the box office. Beckinsale, familiar to indie film connoisseurs from Walt Whitmanís The Last Days of Disco, has the thankless role of a barely human tailorís dummy who spends most of the movie running around looking for her two uniformed suitors. Newcomer Josh Hartnett looks lost amidst all the explosions and overproduced set pieces, but Affleck anchors his hero role with a laid-back, confident charm. He seems comfortable in leading man shoes, even as he is forced to shoot down planes in sexy hula shirts and mouth lines like, "Flying is the only things Iíve ever wanted to do."

To make sure that moviegoers leave the theater in a "feel good" mode, Bay lets Rafe and Danny bomb Tokyo during a retaliatory Japanese air attack. Itís a bit of patriotic payback that seems phony and even insulting in an age where audiences seem perfectly able to handle the ugly realities of war pitched to them by ÖRyan, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. Instead, Pearl Harbor gives us Alec Baldwin smiling at his flyboys, big cajones and all, and proclaiming, "We might lose this battle, but weíre gonna win this war."

People often point fingers at Star Wars for bringing on the decline of contemporary cinema. Puritans that grew up with Coppola, Altman, and Scorsese trash Lucas and Spielberg for creating The Age of the Blockbuster. However, Iíd challenge the notion that Lucas had any idea his vision of wookies, light sabers, and heavy-breathing men in black masks would reap the financial rewards that have made him the icon he is today. In their own ways, werenít Star Wars and Jaws every bit as renegade and daring as more "respectable" films like Nashville, The Godfather, and Mean Streets?

The real finger, preferably the middle one, should be reserved for hypemeisters like Bruckheimer and Bay, who study a film like Titanic, put out an inferior variation of its "history-meets-commercial-appeal" formula, then slam it down our throats with nonstop ads on every prime time television show and daily newspaper in the country. In the end, Pearl Harborís onscreen bombing attacks arenít nearly as offensive as the attack that its creators have waged on their audience.

Directed by:
Michael Bay

Starring:
Ben Affleck
Josh Hartnett
Kate Beckinsale
Alec Baldwin
Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Jon Voight

Written by:
Randall Wallace

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents Strongly Cautioned
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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