Pearl Harbor: so bad it’s bad

Revenge often makes good cinema - but it's a bit pathetic 60 years after the fact.

Allison Felus

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After grossing $75million in its release weekend in the USA, Pearl Harbor looks set to be the first big blockbuster of the summer. But I wish it wasn’t.

Directed by Michael Bay and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the film combines all the worst parts of Titanic, Armageddon and Saving Private Ryan. Some might have found it so bad that it was good – and I know as an American I’m supposed to be moved by its patriotism – but the whole film is just so spirit-blackening and ridiculously overblown. I found it so bad it was bad.

A movie like Pearl Harbor brings out the worst in both critics and audiences. Critics whine about how the cinema is an art form that should provide intellectually satisfying thoughts about the world around us. Audiences whine about how they just want to sit in a dark cinema and forget their troubles for a few hours. And everybody is so busy raining on each other’s parades that the real problem with Pearl Harbor can go unnoticed.

The film’s revenge fantasy – ‘let’s get the Japs back for taking us by surprise in such a violent way’ – runs contrary to the historical evidence that proves America wasn’t exactly unprepared for the attack (1). And while revenge often makes good cinema, it’s a bit pathetic when it’s 60 years after the fact and when we know that America’s story about the events of Pearl Harbor isn’t quite the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.

And despite the gung-ho, square-jawed, air warfare that some critics have mocked, the morality in Pearl Harbor is decidedly prudish. As far as I could tell, any character that was sexually promiscuous was more likely to be dead by the final reel. So it is strongly intimated that the good guy Ben Affleck and the prim nurse Kate Beckinsale don’t get to consummate their relationship before he goes off to fight with the British Eagle Squadron. But when the ménage à trois kicks in, with the more uncouth Josh Hartnett (Affleck’s best mate) sharing a soft-focus, clothes-on night of ‘passion’ (ahem) with Beckinsale, you can guess who doesn’t make it out of the war alive. Yep, bad boy Hartnett.

No wonder the pastor of my church preached from the pulpit on how much he loved the movie.

But the movie’s patriotism is more stifled than some critics argue – with even a Japanese leader having an existential crisis about the bombings and being one of the few characters who expresses anti-war sentiments. As Stephanie Zacharek points out on Salon, there are no rousing, flag-waving speeches in the entire movie (2). But it’s the kind of patriotism on display that most got on my nerves.

The Roosevelt government is depicted as a big bureaucracy that doesn’t have the efficiency to protect its own soldiers – in stark contrast to the young, sexy fighter pilots Affleck and Hartnett who take matters (literally the whole defence of Pearl Harbor) into their own hands. This struck me as the sort of reactionary, anti-government patriotism that right-wing gun enthusiasts should find very appealing.

It’s easy to slate Pearl Harbor for its shoddy history, rubbish acting (just watch Affleck’s forehead) and awful one-liners. But the scene where nurse Beckinsale collects donors’ blood in old Coke bottles best captured how I was feeling – my soul being drained into an empty corporate container only to bolster a war effort that was highly dubious….

(1) See Pearl Harbor: the prequel, by Daniel Nassim

(2) Pearl Harbour: Bombs away!, Salon.com

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