You dont have to be a critic to make short work of a Michael Bay movie: bang bang, paper-thin characters, wooden screenplay. Pearl Harbor is all of the above, but theres no dismissing the film, if only because it offers another long, loud example of how Hollywood remains the hagiographic spinmeister of American war history. By any sane estimate, the 1941 Japanese destruction of the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii was a humiliating defeat for a smugly unprepared and arrogant Navy elite, a criminal loss of life for thousands of sailors, and -- for Franklin Roosevelt (whos nicely played in the movie by guess who, wearing a new chin that makes him all but unrecognizable), if not for his generals -- an object lesson in the high cost of isolationism. Hardly an occasion for heroic triumphalism.
In more than one recent interview, Bay has declared himself an ardent patriot. So he is, in his way, and its no wonder that Pearl Harbor was made with enthusiastic cooperation, not to mention script doctoring, by the U.S. Navy, which even provided Disney with a state-of-the-art aircraft carrier for the $5 million premiere party it threw a few hundred yards from the site of the attack. Bay buys lock, stock and barrel into the revisionist guff that has pulled victory from defeat and made the whole debacle bearable to Americans down the years (and which is superbly dispatched in John Gregory Dunnes vivisection, in a recent New Yorker, of the Navys heroic presence in Hawaii).
The first hour of the movie is devoted to setting up three heroic representatives of the Greatest Generation -- two aviation buddies and the woman both will come to love -- with a PG-13 jocularity designed to make Michael Eisners summer: chortling sight gags for the 13-year-old boys; for the girls, a bevy of rosy nurses giggling behind their hands as they ogle the military talent. Ben Affleck, who is no actor but makes a perfectly presentable pinup, plays crop-duster Rafe McCawley, who, having won the heart of nurse Evelyn Johnson (played by the elfin British beauty Kate Beckinsale), announces that though he doesnt want to die, hes anxious to matter, and takes off to fly decrepit planes for the British. When Rafe goes MIA, Evelyn takes up with his shy best friend, Danny (Josh Hartnett, who looks like a young Tommy Lee Jones, only sweet). Then, when Rafe (as all men named Rafe must) rises from the dead, a love triangle ensues in which Evelyn becomes a decorative accessory to the real couple implied in all such movies, here called Danny and Rafe.
That this is so much filler to keep the female audience on track will be news to no one, for meanwhile Bay has been gearing up for the stuff that really gets his wicky-wack going -- a 40-minute set piece, all swooping planes and underwater pyrotechnics, depicting the Japanese invasion and the entombment of nearly 1,000 American sailors on the USS Arizona. The sequence is stunning, but its hallucinatory -- and, yes, titanic -- technical virtuosity makes you feel like youre watching the next Star Wars installment, not a 60-year-old catastrophe. Indeed, theres a muddled unreality about the whole movie, with its strange brew of racial sensitivity and jingoism. Bay has bent over backward not to offend the sensibilities of Japanese-Americans, let alone the millions of Japanese moviegoers who will fill the Disney coffers when Pearl Harbor opens in Tokyo. But the gloves come off with a vengeance when it falls to Alec Baldwin -- as Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, who led the suicide mission to bomb the hell out of Tokyo and put the roses back in the cheeks of Central Command -- to belt out a go-get-the-bastards speech that raises Randall Wallaces screenplay, already knee-deep in platitude, to dizzying new heights of silliness that top anything he wrote for Braveheart. World War II undoubtedly had its Greatest Generation, but the men who died at Pearl Harbor were not heroes but victims, not only of the Japanese, but of their own masters.
Like Steven Spielberg -- and Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma and so many others before him -- Bay is all too eager to show us the agony of war, and it must be said that the most haunting passages in Pearl Harbor are those, culled from survivors stories, that hammer home the arbitrary savagery of warfare, in which its the luckiest, not the pluckiest, who survive. Still, Bays pouting to the L.A. Times that he was frustrated at not being able to make the movie more violent in order to show the full carnage of combat has a certain disingenuous reek. For directors like Bay -- and Spielberg, et al. -- war offers prime action material, and they have at their disposal enough techno-toys to make each new film the mother of all war movies. At regular intervals during the invasion sequence, a shaven-headed young man sitting next to me slapped his thigh and whooped appreciatively. One wonders whether it even occurred to him that the bombs-away orgy that so jazzed him has some basis in real life, or whether World War II will forever be emblazoned in his memory as a great big shiny special effect.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.