Old habits die hard. With the world's attention in his graspand historians ready to pouncedirector Michael Bay ("Armageddon," "The Rock") finds himself at the helm of turning America's greatest military defeat into a malleable film for the masses to flock to this Memorial Day. One would think Bay would decide to pass over his obnoxious commercial tendencies to make sure this tragic story is committed with the heart and dignity that it deserves. Again getting caught up in the pyrotechnics, "Pearl Harbor" (IMDb listing) stumbles exactly where other Bay films have fallen before.
Given the largest greenlighted budget in film history, Michael Bay is in hog heaven with "Pearl Harbor." A chance to play war on a scale that would make any 8-year-old weep with envy, Bay is at home with shots of destruction and misery. That's his forte. It's the "Titanic"/"Saving Private Ryan" rip-off story that gives Bay the shakes.
Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett ("The Faculty") star as Rafe and Daniel, two Tennessee-bred lifelong friends who've joined the military together. Both buddies share a love for flying and a taste for a young nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale, "Brokedown Palace"). When Rafe is sent to Britain to help the fight against the Nazis, Daniel and Evelyn stay back and are eventually stationed at Pearl Harbor, the Hawaiian naval outpost. Rafe is soon shot down overseas and Daniel and Evelyn are led to believe he's been killed. After a long grieving process, the two friends soon become lovers on what becomes the closing days to the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. When Rafe returns to reclaim his life, the young pilot soon learns that his loved ones have gone on without him, and that he must put away all personal prejudices when the bombs begin to fall that fatal Sunday morning.
Any other director in the world would've shown more restraint with "Pearl Harbor" than Michael Bay does. Marching that fine line between reverence and video game, Bay stages the action like the gleaming technician that he is. I'm happy to report that, unlike "Armageddon," Bay keeps the edit count down this time around. He has more confidence in his shots, and a little more faith in letting them play out longer. However, he cannot drop all of his proclivities. There is that trademark Calvin Klein slickness to the proceedings that I've come to expect from Bay. His films could be set in a cave, but dammit, it will be the best lit cave ever!
Bay also makes a peculiar choice by constructing the non-battle 1940s like a live action cartoon along lines of "The Rocketeer" or "1941." For the first act, the film is all cherry lips, "golly gees," and big band music thumping in the background. When the bombing begins one hour into the three-hour running time, Bay suddenly switches into realism mode where every shot must have roots in authenticity. This mix of idealistic nostalgia and obsessive accuracy is baffling. Bay isn't that collected a filmmaker to have it both ways. It sets up a confusing tone that cripples the entire picture.
When the battles ultimately arrive, it certainly doesn't disappoint. Bringing out the confidence in Bay, the war scenes are staged with outrageous attention to detail. Featuring some of the best special effects of the last decade, "Pearl Harbor" comes alive when all it has to do is think about setting up the next complex explosion. With all that pesky character development far behind him, it is now time for Bay to blow things up. The airplane battles are nothing short of genius, as the camera swoops around capturing the confusion and heated bombast of war. There is fun to be had watching the attack scenes, and that's where "Pearl Harbor" has got it all wrong. Try as he may, there is very little sobering footage in the film like say, a "Saving Private Ryan" had in spades. Bay has become too caught up in the details to push home the "war is hell" message. Pearl Harbor was a tragedy that left a mark on America. "Pearl Harbor" is a popcorn movie with a tacked on message of nobility and character.
Also sure to raise eyebrows is "Pearl Harbor's" rather sympathetic view of the Japanese as a nation that didn't have any choice but to attack America. Whether or not this is historical fact I'm not sure, with Bay only grazing the surface of Japan's point of view. Just enough of Japan's side is given to keep the protesters away, yet not enough is presented to back up "Pearl Harbor's" heady suggestion that Japan instantly regretted their decision to attack. It's a war movie, and "Pearl Harbor" seems to be attempting a little revisionism with the realities of a World War. And there isn't enough room here to get into just how warm and fuzzy America comes off as. I think half of the budget went to American flags and the fans used to keep them flapping.
The cast is uniformly superb, with Affleck and Hartnett sure to keep the teenage girls swooning all summer long with their sun-kissed bodies and lopsided smiles. Both actors rise above their limited characterizations to form whole beings. Beckinsale also goes a long way with limited means and an endless supply of lipstick.
The supporting cast ends up stealing the film in the end. Featuring Alec Baldwin, Dan Aykroyd, Ewen Bremmer ("Trainspotting"), Cuba Gooding Jr., and John Voight (as FDR), the supporting team isn't saddled with the pin-up status of the three leads and can focus on their own characters without having to deal with vanity issues. Baldwin single-handedly keeps the film afloat in the third hour with his winning portrayal of Commander James Doolittle, who lead the first American retaliation after Pearl Harbor. If only Baldwin were ten years younger, he could carry "Pearl Harbor" to great heights with his thunderous talents. Alas, his screen time is only minimal.
Meant to be a mournful celebration of courage, "Pearl Harbor" ends up more as exploitation. The hundreds of lives lost to this tragedy deserve better than rolling special effects shots that will most likely elicit a "coooool!" response out of the average viewer than the horror that should be required. In petitioning for a PG-13 rating, Bay keeps the violence bloodless as well, thereby neutering the shock and horror of war. "Saving Private Ryan" and numerous Oliver Stone films clued the world in that all battle might not be so noble. Yet here's Bay with his endless American flags blowing in the breeze and slow motion shots of troops marching into battle while Hans Zimmer's oddly tuneless score rages in the background. It's propaganda on the level of "Triumph of the Will," and Bay hasn't earned the right to be taken so seriously.
Filmfodder Grade: D+