released May 25th, 2001
WARNING: contains spoilers for PEARL HARBOR and World War II
After three financially successful action movies in a row (BAD BOYS, THE ROCK, ARMAGEDDON), Michael Bay got a once-in-his-career itch to make An Important Movie. He probly had SAVING PRIVATE RYAN on the brain, and definitely TITANIC.
Ever since James Cameron’s movie broke all box office records studios had been threatening to make asses of themselves by blatantly trying to catch more lightning in that same melodramatic-love-story-during-historic-disaster bottle. Jan de Bont almost did a love-story-on-the-Hindenburg movie, for example. PEARL HARBOR wasn’t as obvious of a copycat as that because 1) it was a love story set against a war movie as much as a disaster and 2) the love song on the end credits was by Faith Hill instead of Celine Dion. Totally different.
Ben Affleck plays Rafe, a functionally illiterate pilot; Josh Hartnett plays Danny, his best friend since childhood and fellow pilot; Kate Beckinsale plays Evelyn, the nurse that Rafe falls in love with and then immediately abandons to fight with the RAF Eagle Squadron. Of course he crashes his plane, so he’s reported dead, Danny has to tell Evelyn the bad news, they spend some time together, a few months later they’re making beautifully-lit, camera-rotating love in the parachute hangar.
I mean obviously they have really conflicted feelings about this, they both feel guilty but also they really love each other and maybe it’s Danny’s duty to give his best friend’s girl the happiest life she can have after this tragedy. But they both resist and take time but it just kind of happens, and who is to say this is not what was meant to happen? Maybe a tragedy has opened the window for a small miracle. In fact, Evelyn has been vomiting in the morning.
So wouldn’t you know it turns out Rafe is still alive, and when he gets back he doesn’t take kindly to the new arrangement. This could get complicated. The truth is that nobody really is wrong or right here, they all just reacted honestly to their understanding of events and unfortunately what should be good news has opened up rifts in a life-long friendship and two love affairs, and covered them in layers of guilt, envy and resentment. Oh yeah, also there’s a subplot about how military intelligence (Dan Aykroyd) is noticing alot of odd data but not in time to figure out that the Japanese (Mako, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) are planning and executing the attack on Pearl Harbor that took 2,350 lives and pulled the U.S. into WWII.
It follows the typical war movie formula. You got the young naive individuals and the reasons why they get into it, how they have fun together getting into mischief, going to the social events, falling for the girls. But meanwhile shit is getting real. Even if they knew it somewhere in their heads they didn’t fully comprehend that the war would happen and that they’d be there. And like any movie we follow this group of friends as they go through it all together. What’s not 100% believable in my opinion is that this group of friends all stays intact. This clique of soldiers are all together with a matching clique of nurses and when the day that still lives in infamy happens they get in a car together and drive to an airfield where they can find shotguns and planes to fight off the third wave.
Ewan Bremner plays a stuttering soldier from their group of friends. Instead of redoing his performance from JULIEN DONKEY-BOY he does it more like “Simple Jack” from TROPIC THUNDER. In the point-of-view of this movie one of the great tragedies of WWII is that a retarded guy landed a super-hot wife but then she got killed.
For racial diversity or something Cuba Gooding Jr. has a brief guest appearance as Dorie Miller, in real life the cook who performed bravely during the attack and therefore became the first black man awarded the Navy Cross. He’s introduced a good way into the movie in a boxing match against the guy who would play Leatherface in the shitty remake of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE if such a movie were to exist, which fortunately it does not, never did and never will. This scene has a weird feel because we see pretty much all the whites rooting for the white guy and all the blacks rooting for the black guy but going by the dialogue there’s no racial component to this at all, it’s because the sailors and cooks have animosity toward each other.
After the fight Dorie goes to be nursed by Evelyn, and luckily they have time to go for a quiet walk together so Dorie can tell her his life story and how sad he is that he signed up for his country and hasn’t even been allowed to fire a gun.
Finally we see him during the attack and he’s able to man a gun, shoot down a plane and yell a whole bunch. (in real life there’s no evidence he shot down a plane. Not sure if the yelling can be verified either.)
Obviously I skipped this at the time, but reading up on it it’s clear that it didn’t go over well. Alot of people seemed to agree there was something shitty about making a movie like this out of this particular historical event. It does so much to simplify, glamourize and sensationalize an event that is pretty sacred to Americans (and I’m sure Japanese) because of the huge ramifications it had for human lives, for our countries, for history. I know I found it ridiculously tacky when I saw Michael Bay go on the MTV Movie Awards and accept his popcorn shaped “Best Action Sequence” prize. That put “Japanese attack scene” in the books next to “Motorcycle chase” from M:I 2, “Truck drives through farm equipment” from TWISTER and “Mel Gibson’s motorcycle crash” from LETHAL WEAPON 3.
But I gotta admit, if it’s at all possible to set aside that huge matter of taste, PEARL HARBOR is technically better than most of the other Michael Bay movies, for two main reasons:
1. Not as much bad comedy, although there’s one wacky dog reaction shot in Alec Baldwin’s office at the beginning
2. The action scenes are pretty well staged for the most part
The whole thing is beautifully shot. I bet the clouds didn’t look quite that gorgeous during the real attack, but the vivid look of the movie makes it kind of feel like you’re really there. There are some excellent special effects, because most of them don’t look like special effects. I even think the show-offy stuff like following a bomb as it drops on a ship work pretty well. I think some people took exception to it, like it was making a rollercoaster ride out of the deaths of real people. True, but in a smarter movie it could probly work as an audacious way to shove your face into the horror of what’s going on.
This is the Bay movie that seems the most like an AT&T commercial. He delights in creating idyllic scenes to be interupted by the surreal sight of Japanese bombers. A little league kid’s baseball game, a woman hanging up her laundry, an astronaut eating a slice of applie pie off of a Bible.
In fairness to Bay, it should be noted that the battle is scored with TITANIC-y sad music, acknowledging that this is a horrible tragedy unfolding and not an awesome, award worthy action sequence like “Bus escape/Airplane explosion” from SPEED or “L.A. freeway scene” from T2. At one point I was thinking it was trying to be “TITANIC with flags,” and then sure enough there was a shot from underwater with a crowd of shipwreck victims struggling to stay afloat and an American flag floating in the middle of them. It really does look like a shot lifted from TITANIC with digitally added flag. My heart will go on, like a proud eagle.
The attack scenes are upsetting, even in the non-gory PG-13 version I watched. Seeing all the nurses running like hell and getting shot at is brutal. But it would be nice if everything that came before wasn’t so laughable. It has lines like “I’m not anxious to die, sir. Just anxious to matter!” And “We thought you were dead, Rafe, and it gutted us both.” I mean I kinda like Josh Hartnett, but there’s a limit to what he can pull off verbally, and it stops before “it gutted us both.”
If there was some depth to this thing it would be praise-worthy that it follows the nurses a little bit. That’s not a story we’ve seen in much detail, or at least I haven’t. They spend the whole movie being pretty and then during the attack they use their lipstick to mark patients and their nylons to tie tourniquettes. Nice symbolism, but it would be better if they got characterization instead, or also.
The silliest thing about the movie in my opinion is the convenient way the love triangle works out. She falls in love with Rafe, then with Danny when she thinks Rafe is dead, then Danny really does die, so she gets to go back to Rafe, but with Danny’s child. The best of both worlds, no tough decisions required. (But maybe if there’s a part 2 it’ll turn out Danny’s alive and he’ll come back and the tables will re-turn.)
I have to say I was thankful to watch it on DVD and be able to take some breaks. At one point I was checking the timer on the player to see how much was left, I thought “Oh, this isn’t really that long, I’m not sure what everybody was complaining about.” Then at some point I realized there wasn’t enough time left for the end credits to fit. Sure enough I had fallen for the old “insert disc 2” deal. Then there was another hour left.
For the purposes of this study (and my own sanity) I watched the theatrical version. But then my buddy convinced me I had to listen to Bay’s commentary track on the director’s cut. Bay starts out very serious because he was recording it “250 hours after” 9-11, but he almost immediately jumps into complaining about the “tight budget” he had to work on. It was greenlit at $135, the highest ever intentionally approved by a studio at that time, but Bay thinks that wasn’t enough money for the subject matter. To be fair it is true that nobody had ever made a movie about World War II, the Ten Commandments or even Cleopatra.
In conversation with his proud Wesleyan professor Jeanine Basinger, Bay also brags about singling out a kid in front of 500 other extras and chewing him out for screwing up a shot. He doesn’t tell the story like it’s funny or awkward, but like it’s something that we’ll be really impressed by. Good job millionaire director of Victoria’s Secret commercials. You really showed that kid who couldn’t keep a straight face in the background of your universally despised movie. I hope you made him cry.
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Of all the movies that came out in the summer of 2001 this is the one where coming out shortly before 9-11 is most significant. Shortly after the World Trade Center was attacked a Pearl Harbor (the historical event, not the movie) comparison started to get thrown around very liberally in the media. Pearl Harbor was considered the last attack on American soil (previous terrorist attacks didn’t count) and both the conventional wisdom and the propaganda had it that 9-11 was the wake up call to pull America into a world war.
The movie shows Americans attacked, killed, wounded, running for cover. It shows the attempts to interpret data about an attack but failing to predict or prepare properly. It shows care free young people suddenly transformed and wanting to be sent off to war to get revenge or make things right. When PEARL HARBOR (the movie this time) came out it was trying to introduce these concepts to young people, but they’d all become familiar again a few months later.
I can’t help but wonder if this exact movie had come out one summer later if it would’ve been a massive hit. Of course then it would seem like shameless knee-jerk propaganda, but the country’s mood at the time might’ve led us to pay less attention to the characters, acting, etc. and more to the flags and the heroism. Around that time the miniature flags attached to every pickup truck in the country were beginning to rot, but they were still waving. People might’ve been inspired by the closing narration: “America suffered, but America grew stronger. It was not inevitable. The times tried our souls… and through the trial, we overcame.”
But maybe not. 2002 was a summer of fantasy and escape. Affleck actually starred in THE SUM OF ALL FEARS, a Tom Clancy terrorism thriller, and that did pretty good but was overshadowed by SPIDER-MAN and ATTACK OF THE CLONES. And coincidentally (since it was filmed before 9-11) they had changed it from the Tom Clancy book so the terrorists weren’t Arabs anymore.
People enjoy Indiana Jones melting greedy Nazis, or Brad Pitt blowing up Hitler. Enough time has passed that you might even be able to do some kind of fictionalized thriller tying into the real historical events of the attack on Pearl Harbor. But Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer making old timey TOP GUN and then presenting it as a representation of the real event… that’s not gonna go over well. So no, maybe there wasn’t a good time for PEARL HARBOR to come out. No matter when they did it it still would’ve been fucking PEARL HARBOR.
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legacy: Like almost all of Michael Bay’s movies it made some money, but if Bay was looking for respect he’s gonna have to keep snooping around for it. It has 27% on Rotten Tomatoes and its biggest mark on pop culture was in the song in TEAM AMERICA that compares the strength of a character’s love to the suckiness of PEARL HARBOR. Bay hasn’t tried for respectability since.
This was somewhere in the middle of Affleck’s process of burning through the public’s good will toward him as an actor (it was a couple years after PHANTOMS and a couple before GIGLI) but he has since become a respectable director.
datedness: Being a period piece and being well executed visually it doesn’t seem dated to 2001 at all.
2001-2011 connections: Ten summers ago Bay tried to graduate to more mature material. This summer he’s doing his third toy adaptation in a row (and in 3D this time). That’s probly a better idea for him.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.