Movie Musings: 5 Issues I have with Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, 15 years later
Why does Michael Bay get to keep on making movies?
I guess “Pearl Harbor sucked…just a little bit more than I miss…you.
(from the song End of an Act, from Team America: World Police (2004))
Even after all these years, I still recall the previews for Pearl Harbor. Say what you will about Michael Bay’s films…whoever cuts the trailers to his films, usually manages to make them into delicious eye-candy.
The trailers certainly did their work on me. Even though I recalled feeling a sense of numbness after seeing Armageddon 3 years earlier in theaters (in 1998).But even with the placidly-acting Liv Tyler, and over-the-top attempts to save the planet in that film, the footage that was released regarding Harbor, seemed to promise a new step forward for the director.
I can still remember seeing the film at the now-closed McClurg Court theater (on Memorial Day weekend, 2001), which boasted a 60-foot main-screen, that the film would be projected on.
It was a given that some directors mature over time (look at Spielberg’s Schindler’s List) as they learn new things, and want to tackle new stories and ideas. Maybe this was it for Bay: a chance to pull back from his hyper-kinetic machinations, and actually get us to care about a historical event, and the fictional characters created for the story.
As it turned out, the answer was no.
I usually try to take a Jedi stance on anger or hatred, but there are certain elements of that Pearl Harbor screening, that have stuck with me, even to this day.
And so, I decided to list 5 things that bugged me…and one good thing, about one of Michael Bay’s most overly-patriotic films ever made.
Subtlety is not Bay’s strong suit
It feels that when it comes to Michael Bay, there’s no middle-ground. You’re either in the midst of a picturesque commercial shoot…or you’re in the middle of a hyper-kinetic action scene. Anytime you try to get him to sit down and have a heart-to-heart conversation, he grows bored really quickly, and just wants to get out of there as fast as possible.
That is one thing that seems to be missing from a lot of Pearl Harbor: the little moments that actually get you to care about anyone, let alone get any build-up.
One memory I still have to this day, is the audience I saw the film with, was already filling in the blanks before we’d gotten to the payoffs further down the line.
In one scene, Kate Beckinsale’s character rushes for the bathroom, as her clueless girlfriend just finds it odd that she’s been going a lot recently.
I still recall, from out of the darkness in the theater, almost in perfect surround-sound unison, I heard three voices say (with as much eye-rolling as can be imagined):
The sound of their voices said it all. And of course, there were plenty more eye-rolling moments.
In one scene, as she’s composing a letter to Affleck’s character, Beckinsale sits by some rocks, the waves crashing around her, as she waxes romantically about how much she loves and misses him. It isn’t quite as gratuitous as the animal cracker scene in Armageddon, but the lovey-dovey dialogue also doesn’t seem to have any underpinnings to really make us believe what the characters are saying is genuine.
Even in the early morning moments before the attack on the harbor, Bay shoehorns in as much Americana as he can. From little girls with fairy wings, to boy scouts on a camping trip, to a woman hanging wash on the line (which means if she’s drying the clothes before the harbor was attacked around 8 am that morning, she must have gotten up pretty early to do the wash!).
Pearl Harbor is no Titanic
In a number of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage I saw, one film popped up several times: Titanic.
Only a few years old, the “King of the World” was on the lips of several of the cast and crew, who felt that their film had all the same ingredients as James Cameron’s film. Therefore, they were bound to gross hundreds of millions of dollars…maybe a billion!
Ah, wishful thinking at its finest.
One of the film’s biggest problems, is that when we finally get the attack on the harbor, we see all sorts of men blown in the air, falling into the water, clinging to the decks of overturning ships…but these men are just unnamed soldiers. We see it’s a terrible tragedy, but we haven’t been among them long enough, or gotten to know much about the naval base, to truly feel the weight of the tragedy.
That was where Cameron’s film succeeded, and where Bay’s film fails.
In Titanic, the majority of our time is spent aboard “the floating city.” Sure there’s a love story involving fictional characters, but Jack and Rose actual mingle and interact with numerous persons all over the ship, even across its different classes.
This was a clever narrative device that Cameron used, and it helped to get us better acclimated with this world. When the ship starts to go down, and you see all manner of persons in peril, the visceral sense of death feels more tangible and real.
It also helped that Cameron’s film takes place largely in one location.
When it came to Harbor, Bay’s story jumps across multiple locations, but fails to spend as much time where we need it the most.
One almost feels that if the story had simply focused on Affleck and Beckinsale’s characters meeting at Pearl Harbor, and intertwining them within that world, the peril and emotion might have been more impactful.
There is a small attempt to intertwine fictional characters with real-life ones, such as in the case of Doris Miller, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Though he has a minor role, Gooding’s character portrayal feels like it is one of the strongest in the film, and he seems to do plenty with the small amount of screen time he is given.
There isn’t much “Pearl Harbor” in Pearl Harbor
One would assume that with a title like this, we’d be spending quite a bit of time around the naval base on Hawaii.
As it happens, we only get small glimpses of what goes on around the base, as if Bay feels that by just showing us small images prior to the attacks, it will get us to care.
Unfortunately, the editing of the film keeps bouncing back-and-forth across a number of locations, never really seeming to give us enough time or pacing to care about the ‘set-dressing,’ or at times, the characters (who often seem to be little more than set-dressing themselves).
Of course, Pearl Harbor isn’t the only film to use the title of a place for a film, that doesn’t full involve said place.
Take Steven Spielberg’s Munich, released 4 years later. Munich’s location figures largely into the opening moments of the 1972 Olympic Massacre, but its ghost lingers on throughout the film. It’s an event and a name, that signifies a point in time, where tragedy at a specific place, affected a number of persons and their future actions.
One more…for America!
One of the most famous films about the attack, was Tora Tora Tora. Unlike Bay’s film, this one takes place largely at the harbor, with the enemy as largely faceless entities. Though one of the biggest surprises, is its ending.
Instead of a happy one, we see numerous ships on fire in the harbor, as the credits roll, almost making the audience wonder, “what happened next?”
With Bay’s film, there is no room for thought or contemplation…just action!
With an additional hour of time to go after the film’s centerpiece, Affleck and Hartnett’s characters volunteer to become part of The Doolittle Raid, which took place 4 months after the attack.
The raid itself feels severely shoehorned in, as if the studio mandated that they needed some form of retaliatory ending in order to show that America doesn’t back down when attacked.
The Doolittle Raid was even brought to film, a few years after the event, with the film 30 Seconds Over Tokyo.
What are your thoughts?
It’s one of my minor nitpicks out of the entire film, but I still recall a scene where a number of Japanese men are preparing for the attack.
As we focus on one young man, we hear his thoughts…spoken in English.
Up until this point, all the dialogue from Japanese characters have been spoken in their native language, so to suddenly have their thoughts in English, felt jarring for me.
One wonders why we couldn’t have had the young man’s thoughts translated on-screen instead. It might have made the scene of the many other men around him, a little more impactful.
As much as I dislike the film, I will admit there is one moment that just works for me (yes, I am going to say something positive about the film).
As the battle rages on, Affleck and Josh Hartnett’s characters make their way onto the base, and meet up with several of their cohorts.
There are a few planes that haven’t been hit, and several of the men attempt to get into the air with them (guess which ones?).
The scene lasts probably 10 minutes, but it feels like the one area that just seems to work for me, with Hans Zimmer’s score pumping away, and a handful of men on the ground attempting to get into the air to combat the enemy forces.
This moment actually feels like the most well-edited, and concentrated part of the film…before we then start hopping around again from place-to-place, Bay once again unwilling to just chill in one spot for a bit, and trying to make us feel the impact that the attack has had in different places.
I still remember reading all sorts of reviews about the film in May of 2001, with the only thing almost all of the critics seemed to agree on, was that the 45 minutes Bay spent destroying the harbor, was the only good thing to write home about.
The film quickly sank in the box-office over the next few weeks, and while it wasn’t a bomb per se, its worldwide take didn’t come close to justifying its $175 million budget (let alone its multimillion dollar advertising campaign).
The studio attempted a last-minute cash grab in September of 2001 as well, releasing the film around the time of the Labor Day weekend, though the limited run didn’t add much to its box-office tally.
As for me, after walking out of the theater after seeing Pearl Harbor, I felt that I had seen my last Michael Bay film…or so I thought.
While I passed on Bad Boys II and The Island over the next several years (and I was working in a theater at the time those films came out), there was soon one word that trilled like a siren song, to that toyetic child inside of me. The word, was Transformers.
In-between the Transformers film series, Bay continued to try and direct ‘smaller’ films based on real-world events, such as Pain and Gain, and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.
Though the two films boast big-name stars (and show that Bay can make films that cost less than $50,000,000), word is that just like Harbor, they seem to be hyper-stylized variations on their actual events (and both have resulted in several persons raking Bay across the coals, on how some people or situations were portrayed).
15 years after Pearl Harbor, as Michael Bay gears up to film Transformers: The Last Knight (aka Transformers 5), one has to wonder if he will ever grow up.
He has a small penchant for wanting to do more real-world stories, but he still seems trapped in his “Neverland” of fast cars, hot women, big explosions, and teenage levels of comedy…which I guess to some out there, is just enough to get them coming back for more.