Pearl Harbor (USA 1997)
Like all of Michael Bay’s work, Pearl Harbor was destroyed by critics. It came out right as I was graduating college in the late 1990s, and I still remember the gripe: “Pearl Harbor is about the Japanese sneak attack on an American love triangle.” I never saw it in the theater, which is unfortunate, because not only is it beautifully cinematic, it is the rare modern film that harkens back to the days of Cinemascope, big beautiful pictures with actors so fresh and shiny you practically need to squint to look at them.
It took me another decade to learn the basic motto every film-goer should have written in Sharpee on their mirror: fuck the critics, fuck the Tomatometer, do not let critical reception drive what you do and do not pay to watch. There was a director’s cut of the film on sale one time and I bought it and watched it, all 184-minutes – I was not so much blown away as entranced. For a film that is 20 years old, it hasn’t aged a day – they Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is visually astounding, and listening to it with my Sonos surround sound system is simply incredible.
I have heard and read more rumors about the production history of the film than almost any other film I can think of outside of Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo. The primary rumor is that Bay wanted to make a pure action/war film, but the studio insisted on the love triangle between Affleck, Hartnett and Beckinsdale, and for a change, I think the studio was right – war films are extremely tricky for a variety of reasons, and any war film you make is always going to be compared to Apocalypse Now, Paths of Glor, Bridge on the River Kwai, The Thin Red Line, Das Boot or (unfortunately) Saving Private Ryan. The love story, especially as it evolves over the first hour, adds a twist to a genre that rarely has any sort of strong female presence, and thanks to its setting and the romance, it implicitly brings up remembrances and comparisons of/to From Here to Eternity, one of my favorite American films of the 20th century. If you can remove your “Michael Bay makes crap” blinders and enjoy the story he is telling for what it is as opposed to what is popular to say about it, it is an incredibly effective film.
The film is worth watching for the attack alone – it is horrifying without brining the insanely graphic violence that is a hallmark of war films since the release of Saving Private Ryan. Bay and his editor took their time with it, and it’s eerie how it unfolds on that beautiful Sunday morning in Hawaii. Bay’s work is unabashedly patriotic – whether it’s a cynical ploy to make money or an earnest reflection of American values I don’t know, but he is very good at this sort of thing (Armageddon and - especially - 13 Hours demonstrate that Bay has been doing this throughout his career). Americans of a certain age (my parents, for example) look at the 1940s and 1950s as a kind of golden age utopia. In a large sense he is every bit Norman Rockwell to David Lynch’s Edward Hopper. A general criticism of Bay could be similar to a famous filmmaker’s comparison of Kubrick to Spielberg – Kubrick’s films leave you with questions, whereas Spielberg’s films supply all the answers. Bay’s films always supply all the answers.
At 3+ hours, it will test the patience of casual film lovers, but it is a fast 3 hours, with the first two cruising by. Even if you don’t buy the love story, the All-American polish of the three leads and several notable supporting actors make the love triangle tolerable, and if you do buy the total story outside of the attack, it’s really doesn’t fall apart until the very end – I was displeased with the ending, and I say that as someone who loves the film.