Pearl Harbor is a lumbering brontosaurus of a movie, one that expends ungodly amounts of energy just to perform the simplest of tasks. “It’s all about feeling and speed,” says one of the aviator heroes in describing his love of flying, but feeling and speed are precisely what’s missing from Pearl Harbor. There’s no drive to it, and even its mammoth reenactment of Japan’s surprise attack on the Hawaiian military installation goes on for so long that the energy leaks out of it. If the movie doesn’t go the extremes of jingoism or falsified history that many people expected from director Michael Bay, neither is it very satisfying taken as mere spectacle. The money may be on the screen but the payoff never comes.
Part of the problem is that the movie’s central event is unsatisfactory as a story. Because the attack on Pearl Harbor was only the opening salvo in America’s direct participation in World War II, focusing a nearly three-hour movie on it is tantamount to building an epic around the first line of The Iliad. The attack’s quickness and one-sided results scarcely allowed for individual tales of heroism to emerge, so that the people directly affected by it have remained a strangely anonymous group, largely remembered as half-dressed men running for their lives. (Only the image of Dorie Miller, the black cook turned AA-gunner played here by Cuba Gooding, Jr., emerged from the shrouds of history to grab the popular imagination.) And though the attack was the bluntest foreign policy statement ever delivered between two countries, its greatest drama lay in the diplomatic cat-and-mouse games leading up to it, and in the hopeful desperation of those Japanese leaders who planned the assault despite their knowledge that it would only “awaken a sleeping giant.”
Bay and screenwriter Randall Wallace have tried to give the episode a commercially satisfying shape by grafting other bits of action—the Battle of Britain and General Doolittle’s air raid on Tokyo—fore and aft of the big set piece. But these episodes are perfunctorily staged (the Doolittle raid mainly appears to blow up unneeded portions of the Disney backlot), and their function as filler is transparent. Bay and Wallace steer clear of the story’s political reefs wherever they can; America and Japan’s deteriorating relations are mainly used to remind us that the attack is getting closer, closer, closer. The movie is so determined not to offend anyone that it even avoids directly mentioning Dorie Miller’s race; we first meet him in the middle of a boxing match with a much larger (and whiter) opponent who can think of no more cutting epithet to hurl at him than cook.
The movie devotes the vast majority of its running time to the supremely featherheaded love triangle that dashing flyboys Ben Affleck (in a preening, arrogant performance) and Josh Hartnett form with nurse Kate Beckinsale. The men’s notions of masculinity and honor come straight from Boy’s Life magazine; the nurse is spunky when she’s on the job (she even finds medical uses for her lipstick and nylons when the bombers hit), but she’s otherwise a passive vessel who sits still as the men tell her how beautiful they think she is. Bay, perhaps the most emotionally empty director working today, has no idea of what human beings look like, act like, or talk like. He’s absolutely helpless when it comes to shooting dialogue—every conversation becomes a monotonous series of alternating close-ups so huge that we feel like we’re about to fall inside the actors’ mouths.
Pearl Harbor is riddled with moonshine touches. The unendurable quaint first meeting between a tongue-tied Affleck and a starchily amused Beckinsale is stretched into infinity by having Beckinsale recount it in flashback for her fellow nurses. Later Affleck joins an American squadron of the RAF, and in one loco shot Beckinsale sits prettily poised atop a rock, reading a love-letter from him, oblivious to the pounding Hawaiian surf that threatens to tow her out to sea. When FDR delivers inspiration to his discouraged generals by hoisting himself to his feet from his wheelchair, the preposterous visual echo of Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove is buttressed by our awareness that in Bay’s films the unreality of movies is the only reality there is. A service-comedy barroom brawl ends unsurprisingly with the arrival of billyclub-brandishing MPs; the Japanese Zeroes flitting about the harbor resemble the gnat-like fighter pods in the Star Wars trilogy. Pearl Harbor acts as if only a cynic could be less than enchanted by characters—two of them, no less!—who self-consciously rehearse speeches they intend to give to their lovers.
The big attack sequence isn’t as splintered as Bay’s action scenes in The Rock or Armageddon—we can tell what’s going on even if we have no idea where any of it is supposed to be taking place. The torpedoes hanging from the bellies of the Japanese bombers look like especially malevolent stingers, and cinematographer John Schwartzman brings out some marvelous dusky tones from the smoke and wrenched metal in the aerial views of Battleship Row. Yet the terrible majesty with which the U.S.S. Arizona is blown apart at the seams is the only special effect that lingers in the mind after the half-hour long attack sequence. Bay throws hundreds of images at us, but he doesn’t know how to invest them with gravity or poetry except in the most obvious ways, as when he spackles Hans Zimmer’s ghastly choir music onto slow-motion views of drowning sailors. The computer-generated effects are of a highly variable quality; the worst of them, such as the destruction wreaked on the hospital when a nearby car explodes, are enough to make you wish for the honest old days of Ray Harryhausen.
Late in the movie we’re told that “after the Doolittle raid America knew nothing but victory,” which is a gallingly incomplete way of describing what happened at places like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. By downplaying Pearl Harbor’s social and political bite, and by affixing that triumphant appendix to it, Bay has turned a dark and sorry event in world history into the equivalent of a cinematic thrill-ride. The filmmakers who give us lavishly detailed recreations of the Holocaust, D-Day, and the sinking of the Titanic might state whatever high-minded intentions they wish to for the public record, but in their hearts they know that audiences flock to their pictures at least partly for their necrotic appeal. Michael Bay has given us a less gruesome movie than he might have, but as an invitation to revel in the misdeeds of history, Pearl Harbor still diminishes what happened on December 7, 1941. The fact that he’s piled on the requisite attitudes and buzzwords—“victory,” “patriotism,” and all the rest—doesn’t mean that the veterans of World War II should automatically endorse the shrink-wrapping of their experiences into such a blatantly commercial vehicle. It would make for one fine last piece of heroism if they refused to do so.