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:
I were the Japanese, this is what Iíd do."
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
Harbor is bullshit. And itís not
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
gonna become of us, Rafe?"
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
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
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.
Cuba Gooding, Jr.
PG-13 - Parents Strongly Cautioned
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.