Pearl Harbor (2001)

Full daylight? In a Michael Bay establishing shot? Revolutionary!
Full daylight? In a Michael Bay establishing shot? Revolutionary!

I’ve been dreading this. Re-examining Armageddon all but killed me, though that’s partially my own fault. I was the one playing that drinking game. Incidentally, Googling “Michael Bay Drinking Game” yields up some dangerous results. But while individual drinking games exist for individual films, apparently no drunk has the courage to construct a game applicable to Bay’s entire oeuvre. As that great old drunk Stephen Hopkins (my favorite character from 1776) once said, “So it’s up to me, eh?” That’s what you get for falling down on the job, fellow rummies.

Since Pearl Harbor bored me so damn much, my mind savored any distraction. I spent a good thirty minutes contemplating how hard I’d need to throw this movie off my balcony in order to ensure its disc would land at the optimum place in the street where it was sure to be run over by as many cars as possible. After I filled half a page with geometric calculations, constructing the Ultimate Michael Bay Drinking Game seemed a much more utilitarian distraction. I figured it would do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Throwing Pearl Harbor at passing cars would only annoy their drivers…who’d go on to annoy the cops…who’d go on to annoy me.

In that spirit, take one drink whenever

  • something explodes (obviously – look at what we’re talking about here)
  • Bay utilizes an establishing shot that takes place during “the magic hour” (either sunrise or sunset, since Bay doesn’t seem to care about the difference)
  • a piece of Odious Comic Relief falls flat (not to be redundant or anything)
  • a Hero does something reckless and/or stupid to prove how heroically awesome he (and it is always he) is
  • a Villain appears drenched in blue, since Bay seems to have called out a fatwa against that whole side of the color wheel. I’m beginning to suspect Bay’s been a secret Yellow Lantern since at least the mid-90s…no doubt in league with Sinestro and/or Parallax.
  • you notice how much the camera’s moving, even when – especially when – it doesn’t need too
  • someone gets into or out of a vehicle

Take two drinks when

  • something explodes…in slow motion
  • two or more things explode in sequence in regular motion (certain drinking games refer to this as a “clusterfuck” but that’s far too general at term – again, look what we’re talking about here)
  • a Hero displays his (and it is always his) One Obvious Flaw in order to tug at audience heart-strings
  • a “magic hour” establishing shot becomes either full dark (rare) or full daylight (all too common) once we move in on Our Characters, often in the space of a jump-cut. Because continuity is for fags
  • the pointless and unsettling camera movements intrude on what should be comfy dialogue scenes to completely ruin the mood and reduce you to childish giggles
  • someone gets into or out of a vehicle in slow motion
  • heroic characters discus women as if they were objects – prizes won on some game show, handed out by Bob Barker. “And tonight you’ll be taking home…a brand new girlfriend!” (Applause)
This, though - THIS is the movie's real concern.
This, though – THIS is the movie’s real concern.

(Caution: The Michael Bay Drinking Game is for entertainment purposes only. The management of And You Thought It Was Safe(?) neither endorses nor encourages anyone to pull a Leaving Las Vegas. Though after watching two of Bay’s films in as many months, I certainly understand the urge, and sympathize. I’m not one to judge.)

This game is applicable to each Michael Bay film, but it’s especially applicable to Pearl Harbor, another entry in the long and ugly list of Hollywood period pieces guilty of blatant false advertising. It’s the Titanic of war films: the plot from a late-century soap opera that just happens to take place at Pearl Harbor. Eventually, the events of December 7, 1941, just happen to occur, and it’s no surprise they’re reduced to filler in the movie that bears their name. A movie that’s supposedly some grand, patriotic statement, made to honor the dying members of that so-called “Greatest” generation. Michael Bay’s Saving Ryan’s Privates. Similar to Speilberg’s and Cameron’s opuses, Pearl Harbor eventually drops all pretense of being a shameless cash-in, squeezing yet another cliched love triangle into yet another historical drama. God help us all.

War film...
War film…

So, instead of watching a movie about Pearl Harbor, we watch three characters who have only the tiniest basis in fact stumble around through the opening acts of World War II for a length of time that’s absolutely brutal. It’s the last third of Armageddon stretched out for over two and a half hours. Tremble before its all-consuming maw. Feeble humans! Soon, it shall stand astride the world and we will all grovel at its feet!

The Designated Romance flares between a Tennessee farm boy-turned-daredevil Army Air Corps Captain Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck, in his second disastrous turn in a Michael Bay disaster movie) and a Navy nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale). Rafe’s childhood friend Danny (Josh Hartnett) forms our third axis, but the first half hour of this shameless exploitation of real life tragedy follows Rafe and Danny from the cornfields of their childhood to the Army medical station.

Evelyn (which, in Affleck and Hartnett’s fake-Southern drawl, sounds more like “Evil-Lyn”) meets Our Heroes at the obligatory pre-ship-out eye exam, taking pity on Rafe once he reveals he’s dyslexic (drink!). Since this is the 40s nobody knows what “dyslexic” means but Rafe pretty much spells it out for her in a clunky, expository speech about how he’s “the best pilot in this room” and a boastful prick to boot. Evelyn still takes pity on him because the plot says so. It’s not Kate Beckinsale’s fault. She’s trapped in a Michael Bay movie, her character reduced to an Object of The Boy’s not-so-tender affections.

...not a war film.
…not a war film. More a Pretty White Kids with Problems Film.

After speechifying some sympathy out of her, Rafe sneaks back for a second vaccination shot to try and ask Evelyn out. She jabs Rafe in the ass a few times for this heinous crime, causing him to break his nose when he passes out from the vaccine overdose. And still he comes back for more, hitting himself in the face with a champagne cork in an attempt to celebrate with Evil-Lyn. And boom: they’re in love. That’s love, right? Sure.

It’s okay, though. Rafe is a very firm Michael Bay Identification Character (a Hot Young Person, absurdly talented in his field, who always Gets The Girls even if he doesn’t really deserve it), and he’ll spend the rest of the film proving just how cool he is. Starting with the second date, where Rafe steals a police boat so he and Evil-Lyn can take a ride out to the Queen Mary, moored in New York Harbor. Then he has to prove how noble he is by refusing, on principal, to join his friends in getting their dates drunk and having last-night-on-the-town sex. (How’d you think the Baby Boom started?)

Frankly, I don’t care if you’re male or female: after a night of jeopardizing your career and (potentially) your life sneaking about sensitive areas during a pre-war fever, I’d at least hope to get an orgasm out of it. But Rafe is just too good for that. That’s his whole problem: he’s too damn good. He’s a paragon of everything virtuous and American, an ubermensch Hitler would recognize without the need for subtitles. A Gary Stu.

He proves it by asking Evil-Lyn not to show up at the train station to see him off. As he explains to Danny, “If she shows up anyway, she loves me.” So he’s a manipulative, sociopathic cunt who only sees people as objects, lab animals to run through tests. He doesn’t even have the decency to do it for Science!

"Well...looks like Armageddon claimed another life."
Looks like Armageddon claimed another life. Good job, Ben.

Adding insult to injustice, the bromance between Rafe and Danny is about the only thing in the film that actually works. But since Rafe is so good, General Doolittle (Alec Baldwin!) tells him the British want him Over There. Since it’s 1941, the U.K.’s going through pilots the way I go through six packs of Vitamin R (official beer of the Twilight Saga). America might not be in The War officially…but since when has that stopped the Army from shipping its best and brightest overseas?

Incidentally, Baldwin won my Unintentional Hilarity in Hindsight Award by telling Affleck, “you remind me of myself fifteen years ago.” In my head I made him add, “I see you’re thinking of appearing in a superhero film. Let me tell you right now, son: don’t. It’s not worth it. Believe me, the Shadow knows.” You see the kinds of things I had to do to keep myself awake and focused?

So the day after refusing to fuck her, Rafe ships out for England. With his last breath of pure, undiluted, American air, Rafe asks Danny to take care of Evil-Lyn for him.

"'Take care of her'?"
“‘Take care’ of her?”

No, he means “inform her personally should anything happen to him.”

At this point, thirty minutes in, Pearl Harbor remembers that it’s supposed to be about the events of December 7, 1941. So we get a quick ’round the world montage, checking in with all of the historical characters who actually had a hand in that day. President Roosevelt (Jon Voight! ) meets with his advisers in the White House, seeking to do more for Britain and Russia. The Japanese High Command, led by Admiral Yamamoto (Mako!), meet in a field of kite-flying children to discuss the inevitability of War, because open fields on the sides of mountains are the perfect place to draw up war plans. Like Yamamoto’s plan to “annihilate the Pacific Fleet in a single attack [dramatic pause] at Pearl Harbor.” All the Japanese character’s dialogue is like that: short, clipped, to the point, and villainous.

Would a "Hello, Nurse!" joke be too obvious?
Would a “Hello, Nurse!” joke be too obvious?

But watching them talk for any length of time might actually be interesting. So we cut to…holy shit, it’s actually Pearl Harbor! Finally! Through absurd Movie Coincidence, both Danny and Evil-Lyn wind up stationed in Paradise. And Rafe’s apparently gotten over his dyslexia long enough to write Evil-Lyn long love letters from England, where (forty minutes in) we finally get some dogfight footage. I’ll give Michael Bay this: his frantic camera work and shoot-for-the-edit mentality does naturally lend itself to aerial combat, a clusterfuck under the best of circumstances, where nobody knows what the hell is going on except on a moment-to-moment basis. Rather like Bay’s films.

And, since Rafe McCawley is Awesome, we get to hear his British commanding officer tell us how Awesome he is: “If there are many more like you back home, God help whoever goes to war with America.” Well, Colonel Git, you’re lucky: there’s exactly one more like Rafe back home…though we both know that, in the end, there can be only one.

As if to confirm this, Rafe’s shot down over the Channel. Danny, ever the true friend, breaks the news to Evil-Lyn. The two spend the next thirty minutes bonding over their shared loss and eventually have sex in the parachute hanger…and in cars on the beach…hell, Danny even one-ups his dead friend by sneaking Evil-Lyn aboard an airplane just so they can fly out into the magic hour. (Drink!) They probably did it in the cockpit too. Finally, an hour and fifteen minutes in, Rafe returns from the dead and at last we’ve establish the element that’s meant to pin of this whole stupid story together.

"...except for all those other choices we're going to ignore. Because we're evil."
“…except for all those other choices we’re going to ignore. Because we’re evil.”

See, this is the false advertising I talked about. Pearl Harbor really has nothing to do with Pearl Harbor, and those bits that do come off as comical insertions into a much smaller story. A story you could rip whole and bleeding out of this film and plunk down into any other war from any other time and any other place without making the slightest goddamn difference.

At this point it’s abundantly clear Bay makes awful, bullshit-laden movies. But they’re not even the kind of Bad Movies that stick with you. Hours after you’ve watch them, pieces begin to jumble and the whole experience dissolves into a gray haze. That’s because the unmitigated disaster of epic, literally-historical proportions that this movie is meant to dramatize gets reduced to little more than a special effects reel inserted between two WB episodes.

It’s a very nice special effects reel, but I don’t care, because it amounts to watching a bunch of anonymous non-characters die. The one-dimensional ciphers passing for actual characters in this film are, inevitably, caught up in The Horror…but we both know no silly little areal bombardment’s going to mess up their hair.

...and the imperial protectorate of the brave...
…and the imperial protectorate of the brave…

The first torpedo falls at 1:29:00 and the haunting, choral orchestration (meant to make us think about death and get sad and stuff) begins at 2:02:15, as Evil-Lyn weeps and moans her way through triage. At least Evil-Lyn gets mussed up from that…but I still don’t care. Even covered with other people’s blood she still looks unbelievably hot.

For all the quick glances of splatter at the hospital, and all the floating corpses we see near the end of the massacre, it’s essentially a bloodless battle, a G.I. Joe episode directed by Mamoru Oshii, if Mamoru Oshii were insane. At least Spielberg knows how to linger on gore. But you’ve got to get that PG-13, don’t you? Even in the Director’s Cut I could count scenes of visible viscera on one hand. If Evil-Lyn weren’t a nurse they might’ve gotten away with a PG rating. This isn’t a war film. It’s not even a video game, as some charged at the time it came out. It turns Pearl Harbor into a theme park ride, and not a very good one at that, since I’m in no danger and neither are the mannequins I’m supposed to be rooting for. There’s a chance I’ll go deaf from all these explosions and not have to listen to Our Heroes speak, but at this point that’s not a danger so much as a reward for time served.

And the same woman in the same pair of blue P.J.s runs past the camera twice in under ten seconds! I swear:


The worst part is…we’re only halfway done. How the hell could you, Bay? You spends an entire hour on the Designated Romance, thirty minutes on the actual attack on Pearl Harbor…and now we have to sit through yet another hour-long episode of the Rafe and Danny Are Awesome Show?

It’s as if Bay weren’t content to make one bad movie at a time, he had to make up for the lag between this an Armageddon by making a three-in-one. The Romance that’s really just fucking (or not, in Rafe’s case – he being so awesome and all, the sap).  The Part with Explosions and Cuba Gooding Jr. that’s at least passable. And, after Our Heroes single handedly repel the Japanese (well, that’s what it looks like), The Part About the Doolittle Raid.

"So...wanna make out, man?"
“So…wanna make out? Seriously, what else are we here for?”

My question is, Why? We’re done, right? Rafe or Danny could’ve easily died in the film’s titular event, leaving the other free to shack up with Evil-Lyn and raise a litter of Boomer children. Did the filmmakers actually believe no one would like their damn film if they didn’t end on a “high” note, with Americans triumphant and Japanese people dead? What’s so high and mighty about the Doolittle Raid? That’d be like if the U.S. had staged a sneak attack on Occupied Manchuria and the Japanese High Command retaliated by bombing Washington D.C.

Really, Pearl Harbor Part 3 only exists because Rafe and Danny are too awesome to die in something as silly as a dogfight. So we sit through another hour of planes taking off from runways, planes taking off from aircraft carriers, John Voight’s bad FDR impression, and planes flying over CGI locations. Eventually, everyone crash lands in China, Danny dies, and Rafe returns Stateside to raise the child Danny and Evil-Lyn conceived in the parachute hanger (or the cockpit of Danny’s plane…why not? Danny’s certainly awesome enough to fly a P-40 with a lap full of girl.)

None of these beings really deserve to be called “characters.” Rafe and Danny are interchangeable and Evil-Lyn’s just a nurse. Each is defined by their function to the plot, their relationship status, and nothing else. Randall Wallace’s script doesn’t even try to flesh them out, preferring instead to force the most disgustingly strained dialogue this side of a Star Wars prequel. I spent the whole movie trying to figure out how anyone could think lines like, “This ain’t no time to leave things unsaid. And we gotta face facts here. The fact is, we both love the same woman.” counted as “good” dialogue. Then I checked IMDb and realized Wallace cut his teeth writing Starman. The TV series, not the movie.

Suddenly it all made sense. Hire a hack writer to churn out a script that worked just fine in twenty other, equally-bad movies. Turn that over to a director who can’t direct anything properly (unless it’s on fire) and seems to have a fixation with chopping the top of people’s heads off with his frame. Add triumphant music so the audience knows how it’s supposed to feel and you’re done. Pass Go, collected $200 million, and throw me directly in jail. Otherwise I’ll show up at midnight, pounding on your door, asking Why, in the name of God? Why? How much money is “enough” for you?

It’s never enough, and no tragedy, real or imagined, is nearly as important to a Michael Bay film as the color yellow. That’s why every American looks jaundiced, the Japanese all look blue, and I’m turning green. Pearl Harbor‘s boring, predictable, pointless and dumb enough to assume everyone watching it is as dumb as the people in it. Or the people who’ll defend it by waving all my criticism away with a glib, “Shit, man…it’s not like it’s a documentary.”

To the person already typing that email, I salute you in the true spirit of post-Pearl Harbor America: preemptively. And with a heartfelt, “Fuck off.” I’ve got plenty of documentaries I could be watching.


5 thoughts on “Pearl Harbor (2001)”

    1. That’s two down, seven to go. Not counting Platinum Dunes’ burnt offerings, of course, because…well, no one should.

  1. yep – it was awesome. the kind of film high school coaches/history teachers show in class to engage the girls in the ‘reality’ of war and fire up the boys’ patriotic zeal. yep, a true statement of american values.

    1. In class? Really?

      Well there goes my last hope for the future. Screw it. Time to become the reclusive, scientific genius I always knew I’d become eventually, toiling away in my castle until that glorious day when my plans for World Domination are complete. They laughed at me during the Hypertime crisis, but who’s laughing now, eh?

      Answer: Michael Bay’s laughing all the way to the bank.

  2. This is supposed to be a World War 2 based movie. Its the sort of movie anyone would expect to be an accurate enough dramatisation of events that actually happened.

    Instead what we get is an attempt to make another Titanic by including a love triangle that is dominant over the whole history aspect. It just doesn’t seem right.

    Being a historic epic, they could have cut down on the whole love story and focused more on what would have been relevant such as the Japanese preparation of the attack and the situation President Roosevelt was finding himself in. The sequence of the actual attack on Pearl Harbour was spectacular! Perhaps if they extended it and made it a more major part of the film it would have been more worthy. Another major flaw with this movie is that after the attack sequence the movie dragged on for another hour trying to give an epilogue which was totally irrelevant.

    I reckon if these were taken aboard, then Pearl Harbor would have been a much better movie and perhaps would not have flopped at the box office.

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