As you enter the Borders on University Avenue these days, a squadron of books just inside the front door does a sneak attack on your wallet or purse: At Dawn We Slept, Day of Deceit, Three Days to Pearl, The Pearl Harbor Papers, etc. Nearly 60 years later, December 7, 1941, is still a date living in infamy. Not long after the Japanese navy and air force destroyed the U.S. Pacific Fleet on that unsuspecting Sunday morning, the battle-cry went out: "Remember Pearl Harbor." And remember we do. Even those of us who've long forgotten the Alamo remember Pearl Harbor, if only because we're reminded of it every year, usually on December 7th. This year, however, the reminder comes early. Just in time for Memorial Day, Michael Bay's long-awaited Pearl Harbor has finally unleashed its firepower on a grateful nation.
It's not exactly a surprise attack. The movie's trailer, which may be the most effective attention-grabber since Godzilla's "SIZE DOES MATTER" campaign, has been warning us of an invasion for months. Indeed, Pearl Harbor, which cost $140 million to manufacture and as much or more to launch, is all but daring the other summer movies to blow it out of the water. Riding the wave of World War II nostalgia that was set in motion by Saving Private Ryan, Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who previously joined forces on Bad Boys, The Rock and Armageddon, must have felt this was their rendezvous with destiny'an event movie to end all event movies, a history movie that itself could make history, an invitation for Americans young and old to rally round the flag with those aforementioned wallets and purses.
If only it were so! Pearl Harbor, it turns out, is a lot more forgettable than Pearl Harbor. A love story that uses the most devastating attack on U.S. soil as a mere historical backdrop, this two-hour-and-fifty-minute would-be epic reaches for the sky without ever quite leaving the ground. Even the attack sequence, which comes at about the same point of the movie as the sinking of the boat did in Titanic, seems strangely perfunctory, if only because movies like Saving Private Ryan and Titanic have raised our expectations so high. The love story, which stars Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett as best friends who are in love with the same woman, doesn't link up with the catastrophe at the movie's core. Nor does it generate many sparks on its own. Of the three leads, only Affleck's a star. Obviously, the money was needed elsewhere.
"It was the biggest explosion I have ever seen in my entire life," Bay says about the blast that turns the U.S.S. Arizona into a sunken grave for over 1,000 sailors. Like Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbor is two movies in one: a documentary-like military invasion and a conventional war movie. One difference is that Steven Spielberg led with the military invasion, which colored everything that came after. Another difference is that Spielberg used his conventional war movie to question the conventions of conventional war movies. And a final difference is that, however botched, D-Day was a success. Bay and scriptwriter Randall Wallace (who penned Braveheart) have to work mighty hard to turn one of the greatest defeats in U.S. military history into something resembling a victory. At once sad with regret and mad for revenge, Pearl Harbor is at war with itself, gung-hooey.
This could have been worked into the story, as it was in From Here to Eternity, where Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift represented two ways of being a soldier, the Army way and the non-Army way. There's a nod in that direction when it's revealed that Hartnett's Danny, who's always been looked after by Affleck's Rafe, isn't all that eager to join the fight against fascism. Danny's an isolationist, Rafe an interventionist, the two of them embodying the major foreign-policy debate of the time. But the movie never makes anything of this, never develops the characters beyond their rivalry for Kate Beckinsale's Evelyn, a Navy nurse whose rectitude had me longing for the relatively loose morals of Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity. Compared to them, Evelyn would have trouble holding our attention from here to next week.
Pearl Harbor needs an overarching metaphor, Ã la Titanic's message about the hubris of modern technology. The press material mentions America's loss of innocence; alas, nobody told scriptwriter Wallace about it. Overall, the movie provides little in the way of context. There are snippets of Jon Voight doing a wonderful impersonation of FDR. And we periodically check in with the Japanese military, who are advancing toward Pearl Harbor with a machine-like inscrutability. I suppose it would be too much to ask the filmmakers to humanize the Japanese soldiers, give them their own love stories. But couldn't they have come up with better lines than "The rise and fall of our empire is at stake"? For that kind of stuff, we could turn to 1970's Tora! Tora! Tora!, a Japanese-American co-production that turned both sides into inscrutable machines.
Okay, forget about an overarching metaphor. How about a point of view? For the attack on Pearl Harbor, though mostly remembered by Americans as an act of Japanese treachery, was more complicated than that. Did President Roosevelt know about it in advance? Did Churchill? And just who is to blame for the fact that our ships and planes were lined up in neat little rows, like mechanical fish in a barrel? Was that innocence or ignorance? As some of those books at Borders suggest, there are still many questions about what exactly happened on December 7, 1941. The filmmakers don't have to answer them all, but they could have used them to help carve out a more compelling story about Pearl Harbor. Instead, Bay reportedly kept telling his troops during the shooting of the movie, "Guys, just trust the box office."
Wouldn't it be interesting if the box office proved less trustworthy than Bay imagined? Spielberg insists he didn't expect Saving Private Ryan to be a hit, and although $200-plus million begs to differ, one can still appreciate that the movie was a bit of a tough sell. For what it did was take The Good War and The Greatest Generation and drench them in the blood and guts that had been kept from us for so long, first by Roosevelt, who censored newsreel footage, then by all those World War II movies that lacked Spielberg's ability to put us in the middle of hell on earth. Still, it's not just that Bay lacks Spielberg's technical ability, although Pearl Harbor is shot in that smoky-blue light that was used to sell beer on TV back in the '80s. It's that he lacks Spielberg's moral imagination. Ultimately, he doesn't care about Pearl Harbor enough.
Which makes it difficult for us to care about Pearl Harbor. Despite what seems like an endless stream of Big Moments, the movie lacks epic grandeur. Beyond that, it lacks a true period feel, the lead actors all having been born long after 1941. Beckinsale does have a hint of Katharine Hepburn around the mouth, and some of Hepburn's patrician spunk. But Affleck could have been born yesterday, so contemporary are his line readings. A lazy actor, he's going to need more charm if he intends to keep getting by on it. Whereas Hartnett, who looks like a young Richard Gere, has the quiet authority of someone who knows the camera will eventually find him. So appealing is Hartnett that the movie's moral calculus gets thrown off when, halfway through the movie, Affleck suddenly asserts his top-billing status.
That happens as a result of one of the cheesiest plot devices this side of amnesia. Hard to believe that $140 million can't buy you a decent script these days. But Bay's mind appears to have been elsewhere. In fact, he professes to be most proud of a shot that shows a bomb being dropped from a plane and then, without a cut, falling through the sky and onto the deck of a battleship. Here the guy's been handed one of the most memorable events in American history and all he wants to do is show us what it looked like from the nose end of a bomb.