Published September 1, 2001
Pearl Harbor, written by Randall Wallace and directed by Michael Bay, begins with a visual pun, which is also a leitmotif throughout the film: the impossibly big and gorgeous image of the setting sun. Remember who used to run something called the empire of the rising sun? The movie’s patriotism is almost shocking. Along with Saving Private Ryan and The Patriot it may be a sign of a swing of the pendulum of Hollywood fashion back towards the simple flag-waving epics that were so characteristic of the industry before the Vietnam war and the baby-boomer takeover of the 1970s. As with those other films, however, there are signs that the neo-patriots, being long out of practice, don’t quite get it right. Like that enormous sun—and, indeed, like everything else in the picture—it is excessive.
Like its budget, for instance, which seems to have dictated that it should go out of its way not to offend anyone at all. You or I might think that so pro-American an account of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would necessarily have to be anti-Japanese, but the once-hated Japs here appear as a noble adversary with a good reason for fighting ( “They cut off our oil supplies…We have no choice” ) and pangs of regret for the sneaky way they went about starting the war. When a junior officer congratulates Admiral Yamamoto (Mako) on the brilliance of his strategy, the wise old man replies: “A brilliant man would find a way not to fight a war.” After news of the success of their attack he muses: “I fear we have only wakened a sleeping giant.” The film also goes out of its way to suggest that fears of spies and fifth-columnists among the ethnic Japanese population of Hawaii were merely hysterical.
Other possible grounds for controversy are also sprayed with flame-retardant foam. There is no mention of the “Roosevelt knew” hypothesis, which has recently had some play among academic historians. Jon Voight’s portrayal of FDR barely stops short of idolatry, which must surely be the safe way to play it if you have a very large investment to protect. On the other hand, the filmmakers show themselves to be entirely on the side of the recent efforts to rehabilitate Admiral Husband Kimmel (Colm Feore), who carried the can for America’s unpreparedness. He is even shown observing to some underlings: “You guys got it all figured out, don’t you? The smart enemy hits you just where you think you you’re safe.” No smug over-confidence here! In fact, this is a film entirely without villains. Everybody is a victim. It really is a movie for our times.
This is also true in its use of breathtaking photography and special effects. Though it may be increasingly true that Hollywood can do nothing well but special effects, special effects are not nothing. Never before has anything quite so impressive as these scenes of aerial warfare been seen on film, and for all the movie’s problems, you really have to see it for the visual experience. The blending of live action and computer-generated animation is, to my eye anyway, seamless, and even the battle scenes of Saving Private Ryan—which we see imitated here, along with bits of Titanic (giant up-turned screws to convey the shock of dislocation on a sinking ship) and Star Wars (low-level aerial dogfights with tracer-bullets in the narrow defiles between buildings)—did not create this movie’s sense of three-dimensional space.
But in a way the movie is a victim of its own success, which is also its excess. The pictures are too perfect, like those in a comic book, You see things that no one could ever actually see, which helps to remind you of the unreality of all this hyper-realism. Bay himself must have sensed the danger of his movie’s looking a little cartoonish and sporadically tries to make up for it—by, for example suddenly introducing an entirely new character in the thick of the fighting, a newsreel photographer, just so that he can do a bit of cutting back and forth between his own too-perfect color compositions and the far-from perfect grainy monochromes of the newsreel footage. Then, casualties are brought into the hospital, the camera starts whirling and jumping to convey confusion, anxiety and fear, and to look, I guess, more authentic.
But even this is excessive and overdone, like everything else—from Jon Voight’s prosthetic chin to his schmalzy turn standing up in crutches and braces to demonstrate to the military brass that anything was possible. The ironies are ham-handed ( “We’ve bunched our planes together to make them easier to protect” ), and the heroism of the hero, Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) is laid on with a trowel ( “If there are many more home like you, God help anyone who goes to war with America,” says an admiring RAF officer). One is also uncomfortably aware from time to time of the number of things that are being done just for their visual impact. In the most famous scenes, the ones used in the trailers of waves of torpedo bombers coming in so low that all kinds of ordinary people can watch them almost at eye level, one is struck by how much activity there is—including a baseball game and some kind of pageant—for an early Sunday morning, and yet no one is going to church.
The story, too, is out of a comic book—a tale of two handsome young fighter pilots, McCawley and his best friend since childhood, Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), who find themselves rivals for the hand (and other parts) of pretty Navy nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale). The rich, sentimental palette with which this romance is sketched in almost overwhelms the world-historical events going on in the background. Readers may remember that I made a similar complaint about Enemy at the Gates a couple of months ago. In a classic war-time romance like Casablanca the tendency of the romance is to complement the war-story by providing the occasion for more sacrifice and renunciation. In Enemy at the Gates, by contrast, the love story was a distraction having little or nothing to do with the world-shaking events going on around it.
In Pearl Harbor, this problem is actually worse, as the romance cannot but be seen as more important than the war, since the film abandons the latter some time in 1942, after the right guy gets the gal, with a facile voiceover by the nurse about how “the times tried our souls, and through the trials, we overcame.” Who is this “we” ? She and her flyboy lover(s)? This is what it sounds like, so much more prominently featured are they than anyone else, or any other combination of people, in the picture. There is little or no sense of a national “we” by this point, which would seem to be a fatal handicap in a movie meant to be taking the patriotic point of view. But then none of this will matter to most of the audience, which may expect a little rudimentary drama but mainly comes out these days for impressive visual display. That, at least, they will get in plenty.