I did not hate this movie when it came out. I didn’t even come close to hating it. I thought it was an admirable if somewhat misguided piece of pop culture war cinema that simply couldn’t fully connect with its central dramatic arc. For what it was, I thought it was a well made, well staged, slick piece of Hollywood, and about what I’d expect from Michael Bay. That’s not a ringing endorsement, I know, but I didn’t think it was the fucking disaster that everybody made it out to be. I’m not here to tell people their initial reactions were wrong, because they have a right to that, and subjectivity is definitely part of what this project is about, but I do think people were a little too hard on it.
But as Bret Michaels would say, “that was then, this is now,” and upon my rewatch of this 183-minute film, I found myself praising some aspects to a lesser extent than I expected, deriding other aspects to a greater extent than I wanted, and, for about 40 minutes, feeling absolutely disgusted with myself.
Is It Better Or Worse Than I Remember?
Worse. It’s usually a bad sign when, even if I enjoyed a movie to the extent that I did with Pearl Harbor (6/10 according to what I clicked on the IMDb Starmeter ten years ago), I dread having to rewatch the damn thing. Sometimes it’s because of a film’s effectiveness with emotions that I’m not always in the mood to experience (re-read my review of Requiem For A Dream for that situation), but usually it’s because I know, deep down, that I was probably wrong with my initial reaction. Some movies are simply meant to be watched once, and most of the time, that’s a sign of a film’s weakness. Pearl Harbor fits into this category. I didn’t think I’d be bored stiff for three hours, and I have a complicated opinion of Michael Bay, but the rewatch had to be broken up over two days, and if that’s considered cheating for some of you readers, just know that I tried my best to fit this gargantuan monstrosity of a film into my life at all.
I’m going to try something new, as I think it gives a review, this one especially, a framework that keeps me from going too far into “Marcus Is Babbling Again” Land. And it’s fun to try to remember where my mind was as an 18-year-old.
Then & Now
Then: We should commend Michael Bay for at least trying to make something higher-minded than, say, Bad Boys or Armageddon.
Now: No, we shouldn’t. Not at all. Between this and his mishandling of what could have been a great sci-fi property (The Island), I think Bay is most comfortable when he’s firmly in his mindless action element. You can lob all the insults you want at him, but you’d be wrong if you said he didn’t know how to stage a sequence. His complete understanding of how to most effectively use cinematography, art direction, visual effects and EXPLODEYS is one of the best in the business, and even if that’s not your thing, you have to give props. Aside from Transformers: ROTFL, whose hour-long climax is just special effects punching each other, he composes brilliantly clear and vivacious shots, over and over again, until you start to become numb as to how somebody could pull this kind of stuff off in, say, the 109 days it took to shoot Pearl Harbor. He has the slickness of a fashion photographer and commercial director (which he is), and his work can sometimes be jaw-droppingly beautiful. At its best, Pearl Harbor is a visual wet dream of period detail and sexy hats. What we have a problem with is the manner in which Bay handles emotional beats, which is to say…not at all. He’s pretty much only good at conveying two emotions, anger and bravery, and the rest of the time it can feel empty. And you know what he absolutely cannot do? Humor. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence improvising doesn’t count, and The Rock is only funny at times because it’s Nic Cage versus Sean Connery. Think back to 1996, and then realize you’d pay double to ever see another film with Nic Cage yelling at Sean Connery. It’s too good to resist.
Even with its beauty, and there’s plenty of it, I realized that Michael Bay wasn’t trying to become a serious director. He was trying to ape Spielberg, and he just couldn’t go the distance. I don’t think Saving Private Ryan is a perfect film, and I’m apparently in the minority when I say I’m glad it lost the Best Picture Oscar to Shakespeare In Love, but throughout each of its battle sequences, Spielberg never loses sight of the human toll. And Bay does. More on that later.
Bay is good at sequences, but the sum of its parts is greater than the whole. (heheheh…hole…) Bits are still effective, and would have been more effective had they been handled by somebody with a bit more storytelling panache. Such as the mid-film death of James King as one of the nurses. Better, how about when, after the Doolittle Raid, the pilots discover that they have no way to communicate back to their base and suddenly realize they are on a suicide mission. That’s terrifying, and that would have been a spectacular “What is war?” moment, but Bay shifts away from the emotion and back to the explosions within a matter of seconds. Come to think of it, he really fumbles almost the entire emotional climax that follows.
Stick to what you’re good at, Michael Bay. You make great films for teenage boys and guys who still want to be teenage boys. But you can’t handle emotion for shit.
Then: The love story is serviceable, but it gets lost in the disaster movie elements.
Now: I still think the love story is serviceable. Most everybody rolled their eyes at the love triangle, but I think it often has this wonderful essence and innocence one would find in some of the great war dramas of the 1940s and 1950s. The elements are there. Love at first sight. Endearing dates set against gorgeous scenery. A miscommunication and an incorrectly attributed death. People mourning, then boning. A resurrection. A fight between friends. A woman having to make a very hard decision. This is enough for its own movie, and if you put it in black-and-white and cast Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr (Oh wait, that movie already happened), I think more people would have forgiven some of its schmaltz.
The problem isn’t the love story. The problem is that, as much as I try to defend Josh Hartnett as an effective leading man and Kate Beckinsale as somebody who was once a good dramatic actress, Ben Affleck is the only one of the three giving the movie any kind of substance. I know, people hate Affleck in this movie. They shouldn’t. He’s trying his damnedest to get a rise out of a number of actors in any scene, but it’s not working for various reasons.
Better actors, better dialogue, and they could have had something. It’s all there. It just doesn’t come together. It’s still a good, old-fashioned arc, though, and in the right hands, it could have broken your heart.
Then: The movie is a bit too long.
Now: The movie is WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY too long. This, I think, is really where the film earned its negative reviews. It’s a two-hour story spread out over three hours, and if there’s anything that could turn a somewhat-enraptured audience into one ready to throw their popcorn at the screen, it’s a bloated running length. I could get into how older movies of this ilk tended to be longer, and the modern attention span has without question gotten shorter, but that’s for another time. Here, the movie could have easily been 30-40 minutes shorter. But nobody’s going to give Michael Bay the biggest production budget ever (at the time) and tell him to make giant cuts. Hell, I don’t know if you remember, but Armageddon was 150 minutes long, Bad Boys II is 147, and the shortest Transformers movie so far is at 144. Michael Bay is not somebody to threaten with scissors.
So here’s what should have happened. And I honestly think is would have enhanced the love story. You know, the actual drama the film sets up. Cut every non-main character single moment with the American military, the Japanese military, and everything with Jon Voight’s FDR and his entire cabinet. It. Does. Not. Matter. One. Bit. This is not Tora! Tora! Tora! The point of this movie is not military action, and each time it cuts to some uniformed gentleman (usually some character actor you know from television drama), the movie screeches to a halt. Look, we know what happened at Pearl Harbor. You’re not creating any dramatic tension by showing us the ins and outs of why it happened. Especially if you get some details wrong. There are movies where the behind-the-scenes of major events is important. This isn’t one of them. Bay and screenwriter Randall Wallace can’t handle it. It’s complete masturbation. If the movie is meant to be from the POV of two pilots and a nurse, keep it that way. Have the attack come as a surprise. View the disaster not from a war perspective, but a personal perspective. When the movie actually remembers that, it works, but when it doesn’t, it’s plodding.
Also, cut out Cuba Gooding Jr.’s entire part. I know Dorie Miller is important in American history, but he’s awkwardly thrust into a movie that doesn’t need him.
And cut around some of the cornier and more exposition-laden dialogue. There are some vicious clunkers some very formidable actors have to utter, and they would not have been missed. Dialogue scenes tend to go on about four lines too many, and that’s something that really should have been caught. It usually is.
Then: Holy shit, do the action sequences look cool.
Now: This is where I am absolutely disgusted with myself. And this is where I start to have a problem with Bay’s near-perfect visual abilities. It’s one thing to spend a crapload of money finessing the details of showing giant shapeshifting robots battling to the death. (At least in the first Transformers, where I could actually understand what the hell was going on.) It’s another to recreate a real-life disaster where nearly 2,500 human beings died, and, for the majority of the sequence, all I can do is look at it and say, “Whoa. Cool,” and then feel ashamed of myself. I’m not here to discuss modern audiences’ desensitization to violence (that’s a whole other can of worms), but I am very worried about a.) my reaction to the 40 minute-sequence of the film, and b.) how it is staged. Bay gives us meticulously crafted shots of enemy planes swooping through the air and between ships, dropping bombs and firing bullets into countless (and nearly faceless) men and women, as if this is a roller coaster or a video game and not something we should feel sad about. And I don’t know where Bay’s shame should end and where mine should begin, but for now, I’m going to put most of it on him and his team. This should all be terrifying, not cool. At least when it comes to movies about events that actually happened, this is something directors should avoid. Saving Private Ryan never “looked cool” to me — instead, it fucked up my teenage brain — and as far as Titanic is concerned (a movie whose disaster sequences were filmed at the same Mexico beach as Pearl Harbor), the effects were there to serve the story and not the other way around, and Cameron stayed away from “Whoa, cool” and kept it more in the “Oh……god. That’s terrible.” As many problems as I have with Titanic, those are harrowing, heartbreaking scenes.
You have to be careful. The only parts of the 40-minute long attack sequence that work in an emotional, story-serving way are when it moves away from the ships and to the airstrip where Affleck, Harnett and their peers are trying desperately to get their planes up in the air to fight back and the nurses at the hospital nearby dealing with the wounded. And for the most part, what makes these sequences harrowing and not problematic? They’re seen from the ground, not from the air. It’s not kickass plane POV shots of bombs and destruction, but the human toll. Something went, really, really wrong, and after the sequence I wanted to take a long, sad shower to wash away the shame.
Conclusion: Bay has some incredible tools at his disposal. Too bad he himself is also an incredible tool. It’s still not a bad film. It’s too well crafted, and pieces of it are kind of wonderful in an old-fashioned way. But it’s bloated like a motherfucker, and that’s why people hate it.
Free Floating Thoughts:
I like this bit on Wikipedia: In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “here is the ironic twist in my acceptance of Pearl Harbor-the parts I liked most are the parts before and after the digital destruction of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese carrier planes” and felt that “Pearl Harbor is not so much about World War II as it is about movies about World War II. And what’s wrong with that?”
I think it’s finally time to declare this: Randall Wallace is a bad, bad screenwriter.
I tend to defend Hans Zimmer, but his score here is atrocious and lazy.
I’m with my wife on this during the 30 minutes she watched. “Where are all the Hawaiians?”
I do like that perhaps the biggest pop culture result of this film is some lyrics from a Team America: World Police song.
Fact from IMDb: “The total amount of money spent on production and promotion roughly equaled the amount of damage caused in the actual attack.”
Fact from IMDb: “While scouting locations for the film, the producers found that the modern city that most resembled 1942 Tokyo was Gary, Indiana. A team photographed that city from the air and integrated the resulting footage into the film. For that reason, during the depiction of the Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo, the planes are actually bombing Gary, Indiana.”
This week, the “Hey, I Didn’t Know You Were In This” Award goes to a young and blond Michael Shannon, before he decided that his method of acting would be to terrify everybody with his voice and skeletal facial features. (Also, Jennifer Garner and Melanie Lynskey.)