And now your Movietone newsreel! Dateline: Hollywood. The enemy continues his vicious and unprovoked attack on all that is right and good and decent in America with renewed vigor! As General Von Bruckheimer and Baynito Michaelini jointly launch an assault unprecedented in its force and duration, hundreds of horrified citizens are crushed in the panicked stampede to escape! But with millions of other unlucky Americans transfixed by the hypnotic powers of evil, an end to their reign of terror is not in sight! To the underground resistance battling the enemy, we say, Keep up the fight, and godspeed to you!
“A Jerry Bruckheimer Production.” “A Michael Bay Film.” Is there a single other phrase in the English language that can approach these two for their ability to induce stomach-churning horror? Even prior to Pearl Harbor, the answer was No. Armageddon, Coyote Ugly, Gone in 60 Seconds, Con freaking Air... a reign of terror, indeed. But now they’ve raised the bar on themselves, joining unholy forces to reach a new apogee in crass moviemaking. At least, I hope this is the apogee — I don’t know if I could endure an even bigger, louder, and more obnoxious attempt to create Art, though I bet Bay and Bruckheimer will try me again in the future.
It’s not just that Pearl Harbor is bad. Bad movies come free in boxes of Cheerios. They lie around like pennies in the street that no one can be bothered to bend down and pick up anymore. From clueless bad movies (Battlefield Earth) to disgusting bad movies (Tomcats) to nobody- involved- gave- a- shit bad movies (Town and Country), bad is a cheap commodity, an unmetered utility. This is nothing new — as science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon famously quipped, 90 percent of everything is crap.
But Pearl Harbor is the kind of crap that deserves to be slapped silly, the kind of crap that’s worth the time to berate. This is the kind of crap that doesn’t happen by accident — it’s planned, calculated, deliberate, meticulous even. Bad is to Pearl Harbor what accidental manslaughter is to genocide.
Bay and Bruckheimer spent $200 million to blow stuff up video-game style as a background for a pathetically predictable, horrendously cliched love story. And that might have been fine — sad, maybe, but dismissable — if they’d just left it at that. But no. They want to tell us Something, impart some Deep Message about human nature or tragedy or love or heroism or God knows what, and they think they’ve done it. I guarantee you they’re both seeing Oscars dancing in their eyes; they’re thinking, This is it, this is our Titanic and Saving Private Ryan all rolled into one.
The desperate pretentiousness on the screen in Pearl Harbor is enough to make you sick.
In the hands of a director with a clue what the word “subtle” means or with an inkling of the difference between genuine emotion and phony sentiment, it’s remotely possible that a movie shot from Randall Wallace’s (Braveheart) script might have come close to achieving the grandeur Bay obviously thinks he has achieved. From the moment we meet best-buddy pilots Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck: Bounce, Reindeer Games) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett: Town and Country, The Virgin Suicides), and they meet nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale: Brokedown Palace), we can call all the shots of their absurd romantic triangle. That might not have mattered, and it might have been less absurd, if we cared about the characters one tiny whit — there’s a fine line between laughably predictable and tragically preordained, but all Bay knows to do is alert us to the Important Moments with slow motion, highlighting the Emotion(TM) to be sure we don’t miss it. Oh, and he clobbers us with an overpowering score, too (one by Hans Zimmer that is embarrassingly similar to his Gladiator score, but that’s a different issue entirely), to be sure we know what to feel.
And dear god, the Symbolism we’re subjected to. Heroic characters are symbolically resurrected from the dead or, worse, symbolically crucified — ah, these are good boys, dammit. Little girls — little blond girls — dressed as angels — angels! — frolic on Hawaiian sand in slo-mo just before the Japs attack — ah, the lost innocence! From the constant Rakish Angle of Ben Affleck’s cap to his ridiculous Noble Chastity, from the Gosh-Darn Twang of Hartnett’s Tennessee accent to the Pertly Innocent Sexiness of Beckinsale’s red lipstick, the people onscreen are less representative of actual human beings than are their painted representations on the film’s faux-40s posters. This isn’t a movie so much as a Movie(TM), a trailer for itself, three minutes of emotional shorthand surrounded by three hours (yes, three damn hours) of stuff blowin’ up real good.
Yes, it’s very cool that it’s possible to simulate a bombing from the bomb’s point of view. But when the only thing you feel is the reverb in your chest as the Dolby Surround system strains to reproduce massive explosions, what’s the point? When the most interesting character in the film is a little dog pushing a red ball across an airfield in apparent simpatico with the pilots racing to their planes, is there any reason not to give those responsible for this pompous abomination a cigarette and a last request and line them up against a wall?