USA 2001 /// director : Michael Bay /// script : Randall Wallace /// cinematography : John Schwartzman /// editing : Chris Lebenzon, Steven Rosenblum /// lead actors : Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett, Alec Baldwin /// 182 minutes

Pearl Harbor has been hyped on the basis of BIG: very big budget plus very big running-time equals, hopefully, extremely big box-office. But none of the hype was about it being a great film, or even an especially good one. Nobody ever pretended we were getting another Saving Private Ryan, much less another Thin Red Line. This is genre film-making, and the genre is a very American kind of flag-waving, box-office-minded entertainment, with only token nods towards historical accuracy. The ending strikes an unfortunate note of shamelessly sentimentality and, to non-US audiences, cringe-inducing patriotism – but not to a significantly greater extent than, say, The Contender, or even 13 Days. We can criticise this type of film all we want, and the Hollywood system responsible – there’s no shortage of reasons and ammunition to do so, but, taken on its merits, Pearl Harbor does what it does, and does it pretty well. In 10 years time it will be forgotten, just as Ryan will be only half-remembered, just as Red Line will continue be esteemed as a transcendent classic. Which, of course, hardly anybody went to see at the time.

The story this time is a calculated blend of Private Ryan, Titanic and Top Gun. Affleck and Hartnett are army pilots, best pals since the dusty Tennessee childhood we see in a 1923 prologue. When the shadow of war falls over Europe, Affleck is posted to the RAF and, during an English Channel dogfight, he’s downed, presumed dead. Back on base in Hawaii, Hartnett comforts Affleck’s nurse girlfriend (Beckinsale) and as the months pass they fall in love. But Affleck returns – he’s been stranded in Occupied France, and isn’t best pleased at how things have developed in his absence. Romantic tensions are put on hold when the Japanese launch a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, wrecking the entire US Pacific fleet. Hartnett and Affleck perform heroics in the air, and Beckinsale does her bit on land in the hospital. In the aftermath of the assault, President Roosevelt (Jon Voight, unrecognisable) brings America into the war, authorising a desperately dangerous revenge bombing attack on Tokyo. Affleck and Hartnett must, once again, take to the skies, and Beckinsale can only watch and wait.

It’s all corny, very old-fashioned stuff, though the film-makers would probably claim this as deliberate, citing the license provided by the 40s setting. Bay’s approach is, thankfully, much more sombre and measured than his pyrotechnic juggernaut Armageddon. It’s still recognisably his style, however: fluid, confident, the restless camera constantly gliding over sheeny surfaces. In the past, it’s always late afternoon; all interior rooms (even US congress) exist in a shadowy half-light; everything is burnished with the sepia lustre of permanent sunset. Bay’s technique is slick, but his repertoire is strictly limited: he’s especially keen on slow motion and shooting from low angles to endow his fighting men – even a goofy, stammering Ewen Bremner – with heroic stature. These tricks yield diminishing returns as the third hour looms, especially given Bay’s instinct to lather everything in gloppy, hackneyed muzak – hard to credit Hans Zimmer was also responsible for Red Line‘s score.) The post-attack sequences in the hospital are glaringly mishandled, Bay unwisely opting for shimmery, myopic lenses – presumably intended, with certification in mind, to ensure we don’t see too many gory entrails.

He can do spectacle, however: the centrepiece attack is suitably epic with the music, for once refreshingly restrained. All the trailers used the film’s ‘money’ shot – a bomb’s-eye perspective as it falls towards its target – but the destruction of the Arizona, blown in half by a torpedo, is even more startling its terrible scale. Every cent of that massive budget is up there on the screen, as they say in Hollywood. This 40-minute sequence dominates the film, but at the price of unbalancing the rest of the picture. There’s more than an hour still to fill, and so we get the whole of the Tokyo bombing raid, resulting in a distinctly broken-backed feel. It’s as if Bay and Wallace were desperate to end their movie on an upbeat note of American victory, while simultaneously coming up with a suitably tragic resolution to the insoluble romantic triangle between its three engaging leads.

The broken-backed structure isn’t the screenplay’s only problem. The dialogue, while clunky, isn’t off-puttingly so, but the presentation of the Japanese is a definite missed trick. Screenwriter Wallace is careful to explain the ‘enemy’s’ motives, and to avoid potential charges stereotyping and demonisation. But the only Japanese who have any lines are elderly, military top brass – in a movie that places such premium on surface appeal, they’re not especially sympathetic figures. And it isn’t really enough to just include a brief shot inside a Japanese cockpit, showing a photo of one of the pilots’ girlfriends tacked up on the control panel. With all this time to play with, surely screenwriter Wallace could have given names, personalities and back stories to a couple of Affleck and Harnett’s eastern counterparts. Then again, at least we meet some Japanese – the only Hawaiian on view has all of three seconds to shout his single line.

There’s no point pretending Pearl Harbor is flawless, or particularly well made, or, for that matter, particularly well-intentioned. But there’s little to justify the vitriolic denunciations that have greeted the film’s arrival in so many critical quarters: confronted with the easiest of easy targets, many commentators have let themselves get carried away landing punch after punch. It’s only a movie, and as only-a-movie movies go, it goes OK.

Neil Young
31st May, 2001
(seen 30th May 2001 at Odeon, Newcastle — press show)