Pearl Harbour (2001)

D: Michael Bay
S: Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett

The expectations of American moviegoers have been systematically lowered in the past decade to the point where films by Michael Bay are eagerly-anticipated events. Paradoxically, their expectations have simultaneously been raised regarding the level and quality of spectacle provided by the films themselves. Like James Cameron's Titanic, Pearl Harbour attempts to 'personalise' a tragic moment in twentieth century history by presenting a love story in the foreground and making the disaster itself a sort of diversion on the path to true love. This is nothing new of course. The 'love story as breathtaking as the backdrop' is an old, old standard. Pearl Harbour is a contemporary descendant of WWII movies like From Here to Eternity (or even, God forgive the comparison, Casablanca) on more levels than just the obvious. Likewise Michael Bay is a descendant of Hollywood artisans who churned out quickie programmers of this type at the rate of several per year at the height of the studio system. The difference is that nowadays a workmanlike bit of craftsmanship with good technical credits is 'the movie event of the summer' or 'the greatest story ever told': a kind of monumental epic which promises to redefine our understanding of history or even (gasp) cinema itself. Good Lord, man, it's only a movie. It is well mounted, mind, generally well written, capably acted, directed with a good eye for the pyrotechnical possibilities of this infamous battle, and it provides three hours of pretty good entertainment. But it offers less insight into the psychology and ethics of conflict than Saving Private Ryan, is not as pictorially rich as Enemy at the Gates, and is ultimately more akin to Independence Day and The Mummy than its generic predecessors in classic Hollywood.

To be fair, Pearl Harbour is more morally responsible than Titanic in its depiction of the event in question. The love story does bracket and punctuate the action, but it is not allowed to take over to the point where the deaths of thousands of people are made to seem irrelevant. Scriptwriter Randall Wallace has already demonstrated a capacity to engage with the past (Braveheart, The Man in the Iron Mask), and though he does not quite succeed in drawing the threads of history through the action as well as he might have, he provides Bay with a reasonably good basis for the human drama. The initial hour or so sets up the various characters, including maverick pilots Ben Affleck (Good Will Hunting, Armageddon) and Josh Hartnett (Halloween H20, The Faculty), boyhood friends who grow up to be promising flyboys under commander Alec Baldwin (portraying Lt. Col. (later General) James Dolittle), and also a troupe of nurses headed by Kate Beckinsale (The Last Days of Disco). We are also introduced to Cuba Gooding Jnr. as Petty Officer Dorrie Miller, a person of some historical significance whose role in the actual story of the film turns out to be little more than tokenism. Likewise we get glimpses of the various military and intelligence people working behind the scenes before the attack (both US and Japanese), and find Jon Voight (Mission: Impossible, The General) impersonating President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Though no more or less than a prelude, this section of the movie is pretty well written as genre movies go. It is steeped in precedent and cliché, but Wallace manages to come up with enough variants to hold it together and the cast play their scenes with conviction. There is enough of a sense of the large number of real lives involved in the ongoing drama that when the fireworks begin you care enough to be unsettled. It is not as strong in terms of a social drama though. All of the coupling and planning takes place in a postmodern fantasia which represents the forties without really trying to examine them. The characters are real enough in the setting, but the setting itself is so clearly the work of designers and set decorators that it's never very far from Hollywood fantasy anyway. There's nothing wrong with this as such, but the problem is that unlike for example in Chinatown where the artificiality was itself a form of analysis, Pearl Harbour is merely laying the groundwork for an even more spectacular set of 'movie magic' evocations designed for entertainment rather than perspective.

Once the attack begins, the film kicks into high gear (specifically 'hi-octane/roller-coaster thrill-ride', which comes after 'slow-burn/build-up' in the mainstream directors' gear box). There is no necessity to discuss them in detail in review, other than to note that battle scenes are impressive, and there is a real sense of pain and destruction. A couple of minor points are worth making though. For example, curiously, though there are many images of large numbers of people being gunned down, blown up, crushed, drowned, and otherwise killed, those which deal with injuries are surprisingly coy. Bay deliberately shoots scenes of the nurses tending the wounded out of focus in what appears an attempt to evoke their sense of disorientation and fear. On one level this is fair enough, yet when you think about it more deeply, the suggestion that professional nurses were not quite as able to rise to the challenge of their duties as well as the flyboys whose activities are depicted in vivid, sharp-focused detail is vaguely insulting. Of course the real reason for the trick is to avoid an 'R' rating, as representing violence without gore has always been acceptable, but add blood to an injury and you're asking for angry letters. The paradoxical effect of this is that this works against any attempt at personalisation, because as Reservoir Dogs (and even Saving Private Ryan) demonstrated, making the audience wince when a character feels pain is an important way to establish empathy.

The attack also succeeds in not demonising the Japanese to as great an extent as expected. There is even a quiet one-line attempt to explain why they felt compelled to make the first move in the Pacific War, and thanks to a dignified turn from Mako as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, they come off as proud warriors rather than raiding barbarians. One nice moment in the aftermath scenes has an American wounded screaming at a Japanese-American doctor, demanding to be left alone by this 'Jap bastard', a fleeting glimpse of the horrible backlash against the naturalised Japanese which would follow the outbreak of hostilities (depicted in more detail in Come See the Paradise). In fact the portrayal of the Japanese is more pronouncedly interesting than the representation of the heroism of Dorrie Miller (the first African-American to receive honours for bravery in naval combat). Gooding has little more than a cameo in the role.

The film comes to a close with the Dolittle raid, the American counter-strike which one presumes is intended to provide the audience with a lift (just as the raid itself was). This allows Bay to stage a few more action scenes, but it also allows Wallace to deal with twists in the romantic story. Casablanca it is not, but there is a love triangle here which challenges the audience with some surprising plot developments. One senses however that traditional narrative will always win out in the end, and the last act gives people a little more time to react to what's going on between Affleck, Hartnett, and Beckinsale before wrapping things up pretty much as expected. The Dolittle raid itself simply cannot measure up in scale to the harbour scenes, and its an anticlimactic conclusion which really awkwardly steps into another movie entirely (one about the war itself) rather than bring this one to an end. It does give Alec Baldwin a little more screen time though, and he gives a good performance.

The weakest aspect of the film is its sense of the ebb and flow of history. The depiction of how the tides of political and economic forces swept the United States into war is quite weak. There is some initial discussion of how isolationism was impractical in the long run and some depiction of the debate on their involvement in Europe. But there is rather too much gung-ho dialogue to make this much more than a quiet bit of background detail, and it is quickly erased by jingoistic statements about how awesomely powerful Americans can be when roused (one cringeworthy moment has an RAF commander gravely patting Affleck on the shoulder with the comment that if all Americans are as generally marvellous as he is, then God help anyone who declares war on them. Ouch. That line would have had trouble getting through without a laugh in the 1940s, let alone today). Though Voight tries hard in the role of FDR, his makeup and mannerisms are more creepy than effective. As Bruce Greenwood showed in Thirteen Days, you don't need to look like the president to play presidential. The artificiality of Voight's portrayal of the great man contributes further to the sense of remove from history as a living force in this piece of cinematic storytelling.

Of course and ever, storytelling may be the most important thing to you as a moviegoer, and the real question is whether or not the film delivers on its most basic levels. It does. On basic levels. Wallace does enough with the script to keep it going, Bay handles the action well, it looks good, the special effects are good, the whole thing is exactly what you'd expect with an expenditure of $150 million. There's nothing exceptional about it though, and it lacks richness and depth. Casual audiences will probably find it no more memorable than any summer blockbuster. This is slightly disturbing when you think of what this title evokes when spoken in America today and the resonance inherent in depicting events such as the sinking of the Arizona. Perhaps our expectations of what movies are about rather than just what they can do need to rise again, as technical excellence can only take you so far (look at Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace) before you are left with nothing but a hollow shell where a work of cinema might have been. Some would argue that American cinema fell prey to this trap long ago, but that's too easy to say. The ramparts still need to be watched, and Michael Bay is not someone I'd trust to have guarding them.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.