“I think World War 2 just started!”
There isn’t much to say about Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor that wasn’t succinctly summated by the song “Pearl Harbor Sucked.“ The historical action-romance completely misses the mark completely. Ben Affleck is woefully disengaged as First Lieutenant Rafe McCawley, especially compared to the much more handsome and charismatic Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), his childhood best friend and rival for the affections of nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale). At roughly three hours, Bay leans heavily into the love triangle amid what became his sole big swing at mainstream Hollywood palatability. Two years later he released Bad Boys II, a film only bad boys could love. After that came The Island and then his five-part excursion into Transformers commercials. For fans of Bay’s work, Pearl Harbor is usually ranked as his worst film, with good reason. It’s his most compromised vision, reaching for a level of four-quadrant appeal and emotional maturity he’d never bother paying lip service to for the rest of his career. What surprised me, though, is that somehow his attempts at appealing to a wider audience make his excesses feel more appalling and his approach to the subject matter more upsetting. I found Pearl Harbor to maybe be the most disturbing work of Bay’s career.
The three leads spend most of the story pining through the pre-war peacetime. Rafe and Danny grew up in the Midwest to fathers who fought in the first World War and haven’t ever quite recovered. But that doesn’t stop them from both chasing dreams of flight with the United States Army Air Corps, where they serve under Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin). Rafe volunteers to serve in the Eagle Squadron across the Atlantic, where war rages with Germany. He meets Evelyn while waiting to see if he’s accepted for the mission, and they commit to one another just before he ships out. Evelyn and Danny end up in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where they get word that Rafe was shot down over the English Channel and presumed dead. They fall in love, too, only to be shocked with Rafe returns from the dead, unscathed, and demands his woman back.
Then Japan bombs Pearl Harbor the next day.
It’s all incredibly stupid, lacking even the corny magic of Bay’s attempt at romance in Armageddeon. Although Faith Hill recorded a hit love theme, it never plays during the movie. Yeah, sure, maybe that would’ve harmed the movie’s pretensions of prestige, but it’s not like Bay’s music-video camera work doesn’t already render attempts at intimacy kind of silly. That’s not to say Bay can’t shoot a film: He sure as hell can, and at times his vision of a Norman Rockwell-esque pre-war romance shines through on an aesthetic level. It helps that Hartnett and Beckinsale are both gorgeous. Visually, it almost works, but the whole movie is just missing any semblance of emotional truth. Nothing feels less genuine than someone trying to be earnest in a way of which they’re just fundamentally incapable.
Affleck is also a major problem. Rafe disappears for a good hour of the movie after a horrific plane crash. He’s a loser before he leaves, and he’s an even bigger douchebag when he shows up again and demands Evelyn back like she’s his property. His battle with Danny never makes sense; our sympathies are clearly with Danny, who as a child came from a much harder home than his friend. But the film clearly thinks Rafe is the hero. This becomes ever more apparent when the actual attack on Pearl Harbor begins.
Before that, though, we’re gifted with occasional glimpses at the Japanese High Command going through the stereotypical and frankly racist motions in preparation for their attack. It’s typical Bay, precisely as you’d expect to be. It feels retrograde even by the standards of that era’s World War II-set action films, which mixed graphic depictions of violence in an attempt to ground the conflict (while still deifying the combatants, sometimes on both sides). Anyway, there’s much to be written about Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Flags of Our Fathers, etc., but it’s worth noting that Pearl Harbor sucks more than all of those, and its depiction of the surprise Dec. 7, 1941, attack on the U.S. Navy is the most absurd of them all.
As per the genre, we see men blown apart, drowned, crushed, shot and just generally annihilated by the Japanese planes. There’s quite a lot of screaming and agony. It feels endless and strangely inexpressive. There are plenty of impressive shots, particularly Bay’s eye for following the planes on bombing runs and his affinity for showing planes flying by people on the ground never gets old (even if it becomes a little goofy by the end). Something about his tendency to focus on imagery and movement, though, makes it feel like the emphasis of the attack isn’t on the tragedy of it but rather how goddamn cool it all looks on the big screen. Bay’s films are, at best, amoral exercises in entertainment, which makes the dissonance somewhat shocking.
Rafe and Danny’s role in the attack is mostly them trying to find planes so that they can get into the air and defend their countrymen, which culminates in the two of them helping defend an airfield from enemy planes. I am fairly certain Tom Sizemore shoots down a plane with just a shotgun, here. Goodness me.
Unfortunately, the assault on Pearl Harbor isn’t the climax of the film. For all its flaws, it’s at least an exciting bit of action filmmaking, which is subsequently undermined by another hour of dumb love-triangle theatrics and a heavily fictionalized version of Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo. That little sojourn lands Rafe and Danny in occupied China, where Danny sacrifices himself to save his lame buddy. Rafe travels home and marries Evelyn, who is already pregnant with Danny’s baby. Happy endings all around, I guess, particularly when the credits rolled and I was able to turn off my TV and go to bed.