“Like I see these people on the Internet saying, ‘Oh, it’s a travesty that Michael Bay is doing this story.’ ‘Oh, why’s he doing it?’ ‘Oh, he’s going to wreck it.’ It’s like shame on those people, you know? Shame on them!” – Michael Bay
I have this sick fascination with the Michael Bay movie Pearl Harbor (2001). It is just so awful, but kind of mesmerizing in its awfulness. The movie was his attempt to shift gears and show the world that he could do something other than mindless action movies. With this movie, Bay, armed with Randall Wallace’s subpar John Milius-esque screenplay, thought he could replicate the formula of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) complete with Earth-shattering box returns. It was almost as if Bay expected the Academy to park a truck up to his front door and dump a bunch of awards on his doorstep because he was making an IMPORTANT MOVIE. One can almost imagine him thinking to himself, “This will be the movie they’ll remember me for,” with the same kind of hubris not seen since Charles Foster Kane thought he could make the news he was supposed to be covering.
Only that didn’t happen. Pearl Harbor didn’t make Titanic-sized numbers at the box office (although, $449 million worldwide ain’t bad), the critics hated it (let’s face it, by this point his movies had become critic-proof as the film’s producer Jerry Bruckheimer put it, “We made it for people, not critics.”) and it was nominated for more Golden Raspberry Awards than Academy Awards. Although, to be fair, it did win an Oscar for Best Sound Editing – hardly the dominance that Cameron’s movie demonstrated the year it walked away with 11 Oscars. The failure of Pearl Harbor was some kind of reality check for Bay and he retreated back to familiar turf with Bad Boys II (2003) and is now the caretaker of the Transformers franchise.
Bay lays it on thick right from the get-go as we watch two young boys play make believe they’re shooting down German planes in their father’s old biplane, the sequence awash in the golden hue of nostalgia as a crop duster flies overhead in slow motion while Hans Zimmer’s wistful score swells. It’s Tennessee 1923 and Bay then flashes forward to the best friends as aspiring hotshot fighter pilots in 1940, challenging each other like some sort of prototypical Top Gun (1986). One guy even says admiringly, “Those are some smooth aces,” and manages to do so with a straight face. This is only the first of many howlers courtesy of Wallace’s script.
Cut to Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) being chewed out by his superior, Major Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) for his screwball antics. Rafe is assigned to duty in England where World War II is raging, much to the dismay of his best friend Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) who confronts him about it thus setting up the true romance of Pearl Harbor. No, it’s not the Hallmark Movie on steroids love affair between Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale, but Affleck and Josh Hartnett’s bromance. The scene depicting their tiff over Rafe leaving is the first indication that these guys were cast for their looks and not their acting, especially Hartnett who is borderline unwatchable at times. It’s not what he says per se, but how he says it – so wooden – that is so bad. The dialogue they’re forced to utter does them no favors.
The introduction of the beautiful nurses that Rafe and his fellow pilots are destined to meet reminds one that aside from choreographing explosions, Bay really knows how to photograph women, bathing the likes of Beckinsale, Jennifer Garner and Sara Rue, among others, in warm, inviting light as they gush about the hunky pilots they screened days ago. For whatever it’s worth they are all well cast and look like they came from that time period.
Rafe and Evelyn’s (Kate Beckinsale) meet-cute is largely played for laughs, both intentionally (he acts like a clumsy fool) and unintentionally (the dialogue is howlingly bad). As the scene dragged on I started to feel sorry for Affleck who not only has to try and sell this clunky dialogue, but do it with a bandage on his nose and acting like a child that needs to be taken care of, which is intended to be romantic, but comes across as laughable and insulting. And this is supposed to be the most romantic thing that has ever happened to Evelyn?! Dear Lord…
At first glance, the attention to period detail looks convincing, but a significant portion of the film’s Wikipedia page is spent pointing out the many historical inaccuracies, which is surprising with a production that had that kind of budget you’d think they’d have hired some decent technical advisors, but I can see Bay waving them aside in favor of his version of this time period, historical accuracy be damned! It’s Michael Bay’s version of the 1940s. Did he learn nothing from Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), another notorious WWII big budget fiasco? At least Spielberg was trying to make a comedy; Bay has no such excuse with the unintentional hilarity that ensues between explosive action sequences.
Bay is on stronger ground with his depiction of the plane battles where Rafe engages with German planes over England. They are exciting and Bay does a nice job conveying the chaos of aerial battle as planes dive and roll amidst machine gun fire. However, things get complicated when Rafe apparently dies in battle and Danny and Evelyn wait months to get cozy as they console each other. Danny is a little less awkward in flirting with Evelyn than Rafe and Hartnett looks most comfortable in these scenes as he lets his hunky good looks do all the heavy lifting.
Big surprise, Rafe isn’t dead after all and shows up after Danny and Evelyn have consummated their relationship in typical Bay fashion – slow motion amidst virginal white parachutes. Awkward! Oh yeah, she’s pregnant with Danny’s baby. We have to endure this mind-numbingly dull soap opera for over an hour intercut with teases of the Japanese preparing for war while Dan Aykroyd’s Captain Thurman tries to convince the military brass that Pearl Harbor would be a probable target because it would devastate the Pacific fleet. Naturally, Danny and Rafe settle their differences by kickstarting a bar brawl. Fortunately, the Japanese sneak attack allows them to settle their differences fighting side-by-side.
“It’s like, people die all over the world in earthquakes, whatever, you know, in much huger numbers than at Pearl Harbor. But there was something; there’s something. You wonder, What is it? You think, Okay, only three thousand people died, but there’s something, you know?” – Michael Bay
About 86 minutes in and what we’ve been waiting to see, or, as Martin Lawrence puts it in Bad Boys II, “This shit just got real,” as Bay presents a chilling shot of low-flying Japanese fighter planes zooming by two boys standing on a grassy field. He intercuts tons of planes advancing while most of our heroes are asleep, blissfully unaware of what’s about to happen. Not surprisingly, the best part of Pearl Harbor is the actual attack on the place because it allows Bay to do what he does best – blow shit up. Bay tries to replicate the shock and awe of the first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (1998) with a visceral depiction of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He’s able to use CGI to follow a Japanese bomb as it is launched from a plane and drops into a battleship, which ends up taking you out of the picture as you marvel at the stylish technique.
This sequence gives Bay a chance to indulge in explosive mayhem (or Bayhem) and man, does he ever cut loose. He makes sure we are thrown right into the middle of the action. There are some truly unsettling shots, like an ominous one of a Japanese torpedo traveling underwater and we can see the legs of countless men treading water above. That being said, it’s hard not get caught up in the carnage as we see scores of innocent sailors get blown and shot up. Not to mention, as badly as they are written, we care a little bit about what happens to Rafe and Evelyn and their friends. And yet, Bay can’t resist sticking blatant jingoistic images like the shot of American flag submerged underwater alongside men trying to stay alive.
He also can’t resist shooting the aftermath of the attack stylishly, smudging the lens with a Vaseline effect, distorting it so as to avoid an R rating with all the bloody casualties. There is the occasional odd shot, like a group of shambling burn victims framed like something out of George Romero zombie movie. Rafe and Danny help rescue men trapped in damaged ships and Bay frames Hartnett in a glamour shot, his hair stylishly mussed up, which feels sneakily exploitative and cheapens the pain and suffering around him.
Historical figures like President Roosevelt (Jon Voight) are reduced to caricatures and in what is meant to be a dramatic moment, but comes off as unintentionally ridiculous, he rises out of his wheelchair to make a point about the resilience of the human spirit. This gesture instead invokes a similar moment, although played for laughs, in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The last third of the movie features Alec Baldwin at his most Baldwin-iest as he barks out orders and makes inspirational speeches almost recalling his arrogant motivator of men from Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). The actor does his best to make his cliché-ridden, rah-rah dialogue sound half-decent through sheer force of will, but it isn’t easy.
Pearl Harbor might have been a passable movie if it had ended after the attack but no, we’ve got to end things on a feel-good high and so there is the tacked on Doolittle Raid, which transforms Pearl Harbor into a revenge movie. You can almost imagine Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer brainstorming ideas – how can we give Pearl Harbor a happy ending? The Doolittle Raid also seems to be included as a way to punish Danny for stepping out with Evelyn behind his best friend’s back. And so Danny gets to die a noble death while Rafe ends up with Evelyn to raise the dead man’s child.
Pearl Harbor attracted a large number of young actors into its vortex with the likes of Jennifer Garner, Sara Rue, Jaime King, and Michael Shannon who I’m sure their agents all told them to do the movie as it would be a big boost to their careers. There’s also a few dependable veteran character actors, most notably Tom Sizemore, who brings a much-needed gritty charisma that fresh-faced pretty boys like Affleck and Hartnett can’t.
When my wife and I saw Pearl Harbor in a theater – like many we are suckered by the rather solemn, impressive-looking trailers – three-quarters of the way through she felt a rat brush by her foot. We realized that maybe we weren’t the key demographic for this movie and the presence of rats was a sign. We beat a hasty retreat and upon leaving the theater demanded our money back. We met an usher on a butt break who asked us what we thought of the movie. We told him of our woes and asked him how it ended and he bemusedly recounted the Doolittle Raid and the fates of Rafe and Danny. He did a better job of telling the story than Bay!
Pearl Harbor may feature the most harrowing depiction of the battle on film, but surrounds it on both sides with instantly forgettable filler. It has an odd place in Bay’s wrongraphy. It is the director at his most restrained with some shots lasting at least a couple of seconds before an edit (that’s a snail’s pace for him). It’s not that Bay made a movie about Pearl Harbor, but that he did a bad one. Shame on him! Instead of becoming a chapter of history like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 that we will always remember, Bay’s movie belongs to a chapter of cinematic history we’d like to forget. One good thing came out of this recent experience of watching Pearl Harbor – it finally sated my curious, morbid fascination with it. I don’t feel the need to every watch it again.
Jones, Kent. "Bay Watch." Film Comment. July/August 2001.
Laskas, Jeanne Marie. "The Life of Michael Bay." Esquire. July 2001.