Ten years ago this May, a stink-bomb was tossed into the elevator of our collective cinematic consciousness. The man who hurled said offense was director Michael Bay and his film was Pearl Harbor. It’s hard to believe it’s been a full decade since its much ballyhooed release. But, as Roger Waters said: “The flames are all long gone but the pain lingers on.”
Pearl Harbor is one of those movies that is so bad I am paradoxically drawn to it whenever it shows up on my Comcast, as if it’s a particularly gruesome car accident. I have a forensic fascination in trying to pin-point exactly what makes me want to beat my head against a wall when the credits start to roll after that last painful 183rd minute finally peels away. What is its crime?
Is it the corny acting and forced Appalachian drawls of the two hunk leading men, Ben Affleck (Rafe…yes, his character’s name is “Rafe”) and Josh Hartnett (Danny)? Is it that Kate Beckinsale (Evelyn), having tackled an American accent, is given no lines of any substance on which to try it out? Is it the intolerable close-ups? The special effects that, though sensory and vivid, nonetheless make the Japanese planes seem more like a swarm of Independence Day alien crafts than actual 1940s warplanes winging in to attack a fleet at anchor? Is it the cliché and predictable love triangle that seems crafted by the script-matic 3000 rather than any serious attempt to weave in conflict and breathe real life into the characters? Or is it that it so obviously wants to be the next From Here To Eternity, presenting its beautiful people stars with the Hawaiian trade winds blowing through their hair and flapping their aloha shirts and blouses while the surf pounds majestically in the background…all in super-sexy slow-motion of course.
So which is it? The answer is…yes.
As World War II aficionado, I need not tell you that this film is rife with historical fabrications too numerous to mention that somehow break through the levies of artistic license and spill into a land of utter nonsense beyond.
Here are a few examples: Rafe, an active duty USAAF pilot, somehow gets himself shipped off to England to fly for the Eagle Squadron. This would have been expressly forbidden by the Army. I assume they had to establish Rafe’s bona fides as the older, wiser big brother figure to younger Danny whom he’s watched over from their boyhood days back in Tennessee (as the contrived accents remind us without mercy). And Rafe sure was the scourge of “them LOOFT-waffuh boys” for a spell.
But it only gets worse as the film progresses. After beating the tar out of each other upon Rafe’s return to Hawaii because Danny predictably knocked up his girl, Evelyn–whose interminable close-ups are somehow supposed to peer into her soul to reveal her torn affections–Rafe and Danny get their chance to shoot down some “Jap suckers” as they wake up on Sunday, December 7, sprawled out in a convertible while all hell is breaking loose.
Hopping into the only intact P-40 fighters left on the island, the boys take off to “do some business” as Affleck says with nauseating conviction in a scene loosely based on the exploits of USAAF Lieutenants George Welch and Ken Taylor.
The subsequent air combat scene I would call a travesty but that would be an insult to other film travesties. In 1941, the deadliest plane in the Pacific was the Japanese Zero. It was fast, wickedly maneuverable, and could turn circles around the P-40, which it outclassed in every category except dive speed. The only way to combat them was to utilize wingmen to cover each other and getting up to altitude where the team could dive down on their targets then throttle away. The last thing a P-40 driver would want to do is get suckered into a low altitude turning fight with a Zero – and certainly not without the protection of a wingman! So what does “experienced” Rafe instruct Danny to do? “Split up and get down to the deck Danny!” Whuh? In reality this dogfight would have been over in thirty seconds and Affleck and Hartnett would be charbroiled heaps almost as repugnant as their acting.
It’s as if director Bay took his cue from Star Wars rather than gun camera footage. There’s actually a scene were the P-40s are being chased by Zeros just a few feet behind them (but somehow missing) as they twist and turn in between buildings and through the streets like X-Wings zooming through the Death Star’s trench. “Use The Force Rafe!” CGI can be a blessing and a curse. In Pearl Harbor‘s case, it created a silly video game rather than a dogfight of any plausibility.
Finally, somehow the boys manage to get themselves attached to Doolittle’s famous unit that bombed Tokyo with B-25s flown off the deck of a carrier. How fighter pilots were chosen over bomber crews is anyone’s guess. Just more shoving history over to the side to keep up with the plodding storyline I guess.
It’s not just the slew of historical inaccuracies per se that bug me. The disaster of this film is greater than the sum of its awful parts. It’s just so schmaltzy. The acting so second-rate. And the dialogue? Well, here’s a snippet for you:
Rafe: Tell me why?
Evelyn: Rafe I’m pregnant.
Rafe: Oh my God.
Evelyn: I didn’t even know until the day you turned up alive.
(Gestures towards a burning Pearl Harbor).
And then all this happened.
Need I go on?
Here was a great opportunity to make very cool flick about an important event in our history. Instead we were assailed with historical evisceration, cheesy accents, hammy acting, over-directing, Pearl Harbor Gallactica air combat scenes, and, of course: “And then all this happened.”
For my money, if you want to see a real movie about Pearl Harbor, rent Tora! Tora! Tora! Even though you won’t hear such memorable catch phrases as Affleck’s “Hammer down!” whenever he fires his weapons, you will get some idea of what really happened in Hawaii that terrible day…and not just in Hollywood’s head.