It’s probably damning with faint praise to say that Pearl Harbor may be the closest thing to a good movie Michael Bay will ever direct; unfortunately, it’s still not anywhere close to a good movie. A lot of observers have rooted for this big, $135 million, 183-minute baby to fall flat on its diaper, asserting itself as the unquestionable, contemptible bomb that will finally vanquish Bay’s attention-deficit-disorder style of filmmaking for good. Bay, however, has crafted a watchable and sometimes even dumbly entertaining spectacle out of very base material (the “script” is blamed on Braveheart‘s Randall Wallace).
The question is whether an epic about an American catastrophe should be dumbly entertaining. Let’s tackle the thing itself, up front: The December 7, 1941 sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, which flares up more than an hour into the film, contains some of the most seamless computer-generated destruction effects you’ve ever seen. The many men and women who toiled endlessly to deliver a convincing re-enactment of the bombing deserve to take a bow. But underneath all this is the callous sensibility of a director who frames it all as a percussive fireworks bash out of Star Wars. Closer to the mark, Pearl Harbor is really Independence Day with historical credentials: “Aliens” attack; America fights back.
The center of Pearl Harbor is not the Hawaiian military base itself, but a romantic triangle. Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, hot-shot fighter pilots and best buddies since childhood, fall in love with the same woman, nurse Kate Beckinsale. This, I suppose, is designed for people who like their historical tragedy decorated with the doily of fictional romance — the same people who made Titanic such a hit. But whereas James Cameron was able to persuade us that the affair between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet was in the stars and just happened to unfold aboard a doomed cruise liner, Bay cannot hoodwink us into thinking that Beckinsale’s romantic anguish is anything other than demographically shrewd.
After Japan hits us hard, FDR (Jon Voight, in makeup not quite as seamless as the computer graphics) inspires his staff to achieve the impossible — a retaliatory strike on Tokyo — by standing up out of his wheelchair on shaky legs. I took that as a neat metaphor for the movie, which can never quite stand on its own two feet. Everything in it is imported from better (and sometimes equally bad) movies. When Beckinsale wraps her hanky around Affleck’s neck for good luck, I couldn’t help thinking I’d just seen the gesture in two other movies this season, A Knight’s Tale and Shrek. When Colonel James Doolittle makes countless speeches to beef up his men’s courage, Alec Baldwin is interchangeable with Bill Pullman in Independence Day, rallying the troops with tough-guy doggerel. Asked what the men should do if their planes start going down over Tokyo, Doolittle says he would try to crash into as much military stuff as possible on the way down. “But,” he adds hilariously and anachronistically, “that’s just me.”
It’s undoubtedly no accident that Pearl Harbor arrived on Memorial Day weekend, traditionally the launchpad for the summer’s Big Movie but also supposedly the time set aside to remember those who fell in battle. But the movie’s gung-ho heroic spirit disturbingly suggests, albeit inadvertently, that the real heroes were those who survived; those who died obviously didn’t have the right stuff. This is far from the truth, of course, since war claims the brave and cowardly alike, but movies like Pearl Harbor, with its broad-stroke Wagnerian approach to war and tragedy, hark back to the hollow John Wayne combat pictures in which the conflict was easily delineated and the heroes made it through with barely a scratch (as well as a few sad losses for the audience to sniffle over while knowing that anyone whose name appeared above the title on the poster was safe from harm). To me, any movie that tries to sell the audience on war as a proving ground for noble men (and women) is no better than a recruitment poster for death, and dishonors those who died at Pearl Harbor and every other field of battle. But that’s just me.