There comes a time in the life of every popular popcorn filmmaker where dabbling in the tried and true moneymaking material just isn’t enough anymore, so he or she embarks on the grand project that will once and for all prove their true worth as an artist. Every now and again a director passes the test along the lines of James Cameron and his Oscar juggernaut Titanic, but more often than not the end product is something more akin to Tom Shadyac’s unspeakable conduit of sap known as “Patch Adams.”
Long before stars Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett even flash their pin-up ready mugs onscreen, it becomes abundantly clear toward which category Michæl Bay’s attempt at respectability, the epic-sized WWII drama “Pearl Harbor,” will skew. Barely five minutes into the film, the child stand-in for Hartnett’s Danny is dragged away by his father (William Fichtner) from the kid playing the younger version of Affleck’s Rafe, who then hits his best friend’s dad with a piece of wood and insults him by calling him “German.” To the strains of an especially maudlin cue in Hans Zimmer’s score, the Fichtner character turns around and launches into a sobby speech about how he fought in WWI against the Germans, and how he hopes the boys never witness the horrors he had seen while in combat.
Rafe and Danny do grow up to witness wartime horrors, but greater atrocities await them in the form of the many similarly obvious and overheated melodramatic moments that are strewn throughout Randall Wallace’s screenplay. Wallace, who’s also credited with the script for Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart,” proves with his clumsy work here that it was the director-producer-star’s passionate touch that made that film so special. Bay has his heart in the right place with the ambitious “Pearl Harbor,” but being the go-to guy for notoriously wham-bam producer Jerry Bruckheimer the past six years hasn’t exactly fostered any skill for turning good intentions into genuinely felt emotion (as that aforementioned scene illustrates too well).
Bay’s ongoing tenure in the School of Bruckheimer-whose unmistakable fingerprints are all over “Pearl Harbor”-has helped hone a skill for crafting loud and spectacular action sequences, and there’s no debating that the midsection of the three-hour “Pearl Harbor” is indeed spectacular. No expense was spared to bring to the screen Japan’s surprise December 7, 1941 assault on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japanese Zeroes drop bombs and torpedoes; aircraft carriers explode and sink; many people are left running and screaming if not bleeding and/or dead. Say what one will about Bay’s previous features “Bad Boys,” “The Rock,” and Armageddon, those films did bear the mark of a skilled technician at the helm, and Bay’s know-how with the appropriate pyrotechnic, miniature, and digital work serves the large battle scenes well.
What doesn’t serve “Pearl Harbor” well, however, is Bay’s unease with the dramatic content, which should give the big set pieces deeper resonance. To say that the action-oriented passages of “Pearl Harbor” are the most memorable in the film is to damn those impressive technical feats with faint praise, for the less explosive hours that sandwich the attack are tedious at best and laughable at worst. Much like how “Titanic” isn’t really about the sinking of the big boat, “Pearl Harbor” isn’t so much a recounting of “the day that will live in infamy” (or, for that matter, a tribute to the courageous efforts of those who served) than it is just a fictional romance that plays out against a real-life tragedy. Unlike “Titanic,” the love story fails to provide a convincing emotional through-line for the film. The startling lack of chemistry between the three players in the central triangle — Rafe and Danny, who become Army pilots; and Evelyne (Kate Beckinsale), a nurse-renders all the other complaints that can be leveled against the story moot. Yes, every single character (not just the focal trio) is sketchily drawn; yes, there are unintentionally comic moments of melodrama played with all the grace and subtlety of a jackhammer; yes, one can foresee how it’s all going to turn out by the end of the first hour. But with none of the actors displaying a believable emotional investment in each other, how can the audience be expected to care about them?
Not that it’s likely to matter much in the end, anyway. Misleading though it may be, Disney’s decision to downplay the dominant love story and simply sell that shot of a bomb dropping is the right one. After all, not only is it what’ll get butts into the seats, the visceral mayhem and the other element prominently showcased in the ads — cinematographer John Schwartzman’s gorgeous images — are indeed the only major virtues of the entire production. With Bay showing once again that he can blow s**t up real good, word-of-mouth on “Pearl Harbor,” as with Bay/Bruckheimer blockbusters of previous years, will be propelled by nothing else but its sheer spectacle. While that may be good enough for an ever-easy-to-please moviegoing public, it cannot be for Bay, who so clearly, desperately strove for so much more.
Read Film Threat’s review of the Pearl Harbor DVD>>>