It is fair to say that Pearl Harbor’s turkey credentials are now the stuff of legend. A question remains, however: is Pearl Harbor really so bad as to deserve being lumped together with such cinematic disasters as Mariah Carey’s Glitter and Eddie Murphy’s The Adventures of Pluto Nash, two films that truly epitomise the notion of an error of judgement? There is a selection of films, Glitter and Nash included, produced in the last decade or so whose quality is so collectively derided that they sink below their own supposed mediocrity to assume places within a culturally specific language that delineates a film’s failures according to the various markers inscribed upon a scale of cinematic garbage that these films had a hand in creating.
If one emerges from a screening and blasts the film with the suggestion that they had a more riveting time watching Affleck and J-Lo gobbling in Gigli, or that a performance was less nuanced than Travolta in Battlefield Earth, or that they laughed more in Movie 43, you might know what they’re getting at. You needn’t be a film aficionado to find such titles synonymous with complete, utter, unequivocal dross. Sitting among those films is Pearl Harbor, a film that is purportedly so bad that Matt Parker and Trey Stone’s Team America: World Police dedicated an entire musical number (‘The End of an Act’) to the fact that the movie “sucks”. Such irreverent mockery and six Razzie nominations places Pearl Harbor among a select group of films that have become bywords for awfulness; here is an opportunity for Michael Bay’s muddled foray into the world of serious filmmaking to earn a second (read: final) chance.
Say what you will of Michael Bay, but he is a filmmaker who knows exactly what he’s about. Arguably Pearl Harbor remains his only real attempt at straight-faced, serious, or worthy filmmaking and there is something to be said for the fact that he has not really tried again since. Sure, Pearl Harbor is a long way from the austere, epic canvasses of David Lean’s classics, but it is certainly better than the xenophobic garbage that was Bad Boys II. Come on people, this was hardly going to be Lawrence of Arabia for the twenty-first century. Perhaps, in part, Pearl Harbor’s failure was down to Bay’s inability to handle the material at hand; his attempts to dramatise the catalyst that initiated the United States’ WWII campaign is a far cry from handling the various bangs, bromances, and moments of ‘Bayhem’ in his previous features Bad Boys, The Rock (without question the closest Bay will ever come to a masterpiece), and Armageddon.
Fear not those who failed to pay attention in history class, for Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor is not ashamed to play it loose with the facts, much to the fury of many of its key detractors. The plot is relatively simple: Rafe, Danny, and Evelyn’s love triangle blossoms and is then inconvenienced by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – at times it feels as though the film was born from the same cookie-cut blockbuster mould that produced Cameron’s mega-hit Titanic four years previously. It is worth considering for a moment the duty that a film, which is in this sense an entertainment product, owes to history. It is a debate that will continue to enrage many, not just in regard to Pearl Harbor, but in respect to the (often) heavy-handed approach that film has to the past. Art is not bound by the same rules that govern historical scholarship, and nor should it be. It is not up to filmmakers to make up for history lessons missed. The tone of Bay’s film is sombre and reverential – it could hardly be more patriotic if the entire score was ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ played on loop – so it is not like a few inaccuracies are doing a disservice to those who perished at Pearl Harbor, certainly not for the right-wing demographic that the film is pitching to.
In light of that argument, this second chance is an opportunity to ignore much of the disparagement that characterized Pearl Harbor’s critical battery and look at the film itself. Bay’s failing is not, then, the fact that that he has chosen to be economical with the past; rather it lies in the fact that the film lacks the dramatic edge or humanity that seeps through the veins of such classics as Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. A great filmmaker such as Lean knew the importance of creating multi-dimensional “heroes” and “villains” that were not really heroes or villains at all but human beings ideologically at odds with one another within the absurd theatre of war (Sussue Hayakawa’s Colonel Saito in Lean’s 1957 masterpiece is a wonderful encapsulation of that essential dynamic). Instead, we are given Ben Affleck in his wilderness years (read: shit) and Josh Hartnett (read: Hairnet) who maintain the collective screen personality of a potato. In fact, Cuba Gooding Jr. delivers by far the film’s best performance as the anti-aircraft rifle-wielding Petty Officer Second Class Dorie Miller (of course, he is not nearly white enough to ever be our lead, although that would have been a film worth seeing). The stomach-turning love story of the central trio appears to be ripped straight from the likes of Titanic or Top Gun – and let’s face it, Affleck and Beckinsale are no Leo and Kate – and contains dialogue that would make George “are you an angel?” Lucas cringe. Take a look at this:
Jeff Strickler wrote in a review at the time of release that “the centerpiece is the attack [on Pearl Harbor]. For 50 minutes, the filmmakers unleash nonstop eye candy”. It is fair to argue that Michael Bay knows more about machines than he does about people; the human moments are still impossible to defend but there is no denying that he is a director who knows how to deliver a set-piece. The attack is still an eye-opener and it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker in the world who might have staged it better. Authenticity and snobbery aside, the attack on Pearl Harbor remains one of great action set-pieces of recent years and the bomb’s-eye assault on the USS Arizona in particular remains an inspired piece of filmmaking. What Bay lacks in nuance – for his filmmaker’s gaze is one of quintessential conservative masculinity that panders to the same crowd that made American Sniper into a resounding, albeit controversial, hit – he makes up for with style.
Pearl Harbor is not a great film but, in moments such as the attack itself, it shows flashes of great filmmaking. For all its flaws, it is worth a dozen Norbits (Eddie Murphy, what happened?), and it certainly does not deserve to be lambasted in the way it has been. To his credit Bay has never really tried to make a film like it since (admittedly he’s been somewhat busy destroying the world several times over with the Transformers franchise) but perhaps it’s due to Bay’s success with films such as that that Pearl Harbor is so culturally reviled. Pearl Harbor required a different breed of filmmaker and, for the final time, Bay is not David Lean; he had no chance of living up to the gravitas of his subject matter and his attempt, while tentatively honourable at an arm’s length, is all the more pronounced in its failings for that initial, misguided ambition.