Up Where We Belong

Pearl Harbor is Top Gun with period costumes. 

Pearl Harbor
Directed by Michael Bay
Buena Vista

The rout of the U.S. military in the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor might seem a downbeat subject for a summer blockbuster, but a glance at the names of the director (Michael Bay, of Armageddon [1998]) and producer (Jerry Bruckheimer, of Top Gun [1986], etc.) clues you in at the start that this won’t be a grim saga of chaos, incompetence, and possible chicanery: It will be an inspiring testament to the indomitability of the American spirit—with killer FX. The FX part isn’t so parenthetical. One of the biggest selling points of Pearl Harbor—a movie that’s nothing but selling points—is that it portrays this fabled American disaster with so much money and state-of-the-art technical wizardry and sheer brawny confidence in its own commercial savvy that you never really think about blaming anyone for the tragedy of Dec. 7, 1941. It’s more an occasion to sniffle, preen, pat yourself on the back, and then go forth and barbecue—smug in the knowledge that American movies rule the world.

So what’s so bad about wallowing in our own potency? And why not bring back World War II as an occasion for showing off? It was, after all, the last romantic U.S. battle, the one in which no one—at least, no one after Pearl Harbor—disputed that we belonged in the global fight against imperial fascism. Why not clear away the last, persistent vapors of post-Vietnam self-hatred? Why not eschew scapegoats (or, for that matter, historical causes) when the most important thing is paying tribute to our homegrown top guns (here played by Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett) as they valorously leap into their ill-equipped fighter planes and—led by the irascible Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin)—swoop down on Tokyo to get a piece of their own back? It was the Japs who drew first blood with their steely, amoral precision: Why not an old-fashioned guts-and-glory war picture that shows Americans winning with heart?

The answers to those questions depend, of course, on your view of movies: whether you believe they owe it to their subjects (and their audiences) to illuminate as well as entertain, or whether you basically go to see handsome men kissing pretty girls and stuff blowing up. From my middling perspective (i.e., I like to be illuminated while stuff is blowing up), I found Pearl Harbor annoying but not excruciating—even at three hours, it’s less assaultive than either The Mummy Returns or Moulin Rouge. There are funny, meet-cute scenes with Affleck’s Rafe and Kate Beckinsale’s Evelyn, a redoubtable Florence Nightingale type. (I always go for those bits where swaggering jocks get nailed in the butt by not-so-subtly gloating nurses.) The dogfights are fast and thrillingly fluid; and, thanks to computers, colossal explosions can now be rendered as colossal explosions with limbs and torsos hurtling toward the camera. (Many brave pixels died for this movie.) The smoke that billows from the devastated battleships is a deep, nightmarish black—stunning against the slate-gray water and bright orange flames. Critics like to pick on Michael Bay, but I think he has more film sense than Tony and Ridley Scott put together. His battle montages are more than disparate bursts of energy haphazardly blended—they make linear sense. And he knows how to direct comedy—intentionally, I mean.

All the same, Bay is very much a creature of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (yes, Simpson is dead, but his aesthetic lingers like a chemical spill), which means that Pearl Harbor is essentially Top Gun with period costumes and the campy homoeroticism in check. There’s no variety in the long, central bombardment sequence, and the rest of the time the corny lyricism can narcotize you: the creamy, color-coordinated infirmary; the trains that send up cumulous clouds of steam that catch the light and bathe the parting lovers in blue; the Japanese bombers that fly past golden-haired boys releasing baseballs; the soldiers who triumphantly throw up their arms in slow motion. Bay isn’t trying to make the movie look real: He wants you to leap into the pages of Life magazine, with its satiny glamour and broad sociological messages. But we’ve already seen, and snickered at, that vision of history—in 1941 (1979) Steven Spielberg was already parodying what Pearl Harbor plays straight.

This time, however, there’s a love triangle to anchor the boom-and-whoosh. The heroes, Rafe and Danny (Hartnett), are childhood buddies who train to be flyers together—they’re mavericks, hot dogs. They piss off their instructor, Doolittle, but they impress him, too. (Baldwin, who clicks his choppers to show manly relish, is one step away from a Saturday Night Live turn—how did he keep a straight face?) Rafe tumbles hard for Florence (I mean Evelyn), which is great until he takes off for England to aid the RAF (Rafe in the RAF: hmmm …), and Danny and Evelyn wind up side-by-side in Pearl Harbor. (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t already know what happens and can’t—duh—predict it.) The buddieship, of course, is threatened by a woman, but it’s not as if anyone cheats on anyone. See, Evelyn thinks the love of her life—whom she has only known for a month, incidentally—has been killed. The grief-stricken Danny reaches out to her as a way of keeping his best friend close (maybe also because she’s unbelievably gorgeous). So Rafe turns out to be the perfect crimeless victim—just as the United States is a crimeless victim when the Japanese start bombing. It’s really important for Rafe and Danny to overcome their divisions if they want to defeat the enemy—to put the country before themselves, just as Evelyn puts Danny’s child (the future) before herself in deciding between these exemplary soldiers. With young people like this, how can the United States possibly lose?

Affleck is leaner and more chiseled here, and he’s doing his best to shed his what-me-worry preppy smugness—even though that’s the most distinctive thing about him. His lack of histrionic range actually helps: He dries the role out and gives it some edge. He’s certainly a more interesting match for Beckinsale than Josh Hartnett, whose features are too incestuously similar to hers. (They’re beautiful features, they’re just from the same earnest, button-eyed mold.) Becksinsale has to shout things like, “Everybody to the hospital!” while ducking shrapnel, but at least she looks great in the clothes. The archetypal Simpson-Bruckheimer girl is tall and sultry and swishes toward the camera in semi-slow-motion—slow enough to tantalize the audience but not so slow as to reduce it to puddles of mirth. Compared to Kelly McGillis as a flight instructor and a 22-year-old Nicole Kidman as a renowned neurosurgeon, Beckinsale’s nurse is gritty realism. (I’m putting in parentheses Cuba Gooding Jr.—who plays an African-American soldier confined to food service until the Japanese attack and who magically fulfills his destiny behind a machine gun—because that’s where the movie puts him.)

How are the Japanese portrayed? With a painstaking formality. No sadistic Japs—just brave, stoic automatons. Their motives are never entirely clear, but then, neither are the American government’s. Pearl Harbor ignores the work of John Toland (Infamy) and other historians who’ve made a plausible case that FDR knew of the imminent attack on the Hawaiian base but didn’t warn its commanders for fear that the Japanese fleet would turn back. The theory, which I find convincing, is that FDR wanted the surprise attack to happen, that he thought (correctly) it would induce the American electorate—at that point split into fierce camps of isolationists and interventionists—to endorse prompt American participation in a war that was already eating up Europe and parts of the South Pacific. No one thinks FDR had any idea of the efficiency of the Japanese attack and the scale of the destruction—that part was a genuine surprise. Although Pearl Harbor goes out of its way to avoid blaming Rear Adm. Husband Kimmel and Maj. Gen. Walter Short—the whipping boys of the day—it doesn’t offer much in the way of analysis, and FDR (tenderly impersonated by Jon Voight) is portrayed as a heroically indignant innocent. You end up thinking that if the military brass had just listened to ace code-breaker Thurman (Dan Aykroyd), who had a feeling in his sizable gut that those Japs were up to something, the bombings wouldn’t have found so many people in bed or on the golf course. Unmentioned in the film are the volcanic recriminations that raged in the invasion’s aftermath: The filmmakers are too concerned with getting Affleck and Hartnett into bombers to kick some Japanese butt.

When you jeer a sentimental, flag-waving war picture like Pearl Harbor, a lot of people think you’re being disrespectful to the very idea of military heroism; but what’s unclear is how rooting for a bunch of narcissistic actors who puff out their chests and risk the lives of their stunt doubles is a meaningful way of honoring the men and women who actually fought and died in battle. The movie is not the event. Before he turned himself into a musclebound poster-boy for martyred POWs, Sylvester Stallone sat out the Vietnam War to teach skiing to rich girls at a Swiss boarding school—yet if you make fun of Rambo, you’re not seen as razzing an egomaniacal opportunist, you’re seen as slandering our brave boys. If you say that Pearl Harbor is bloated, mind-numbing schlock, you’re not attacking corporate pandering at its most egregious, you’re showing contempt for Memorial Day. In fact, I have too much respect for Memorial Day to want to celebrate it by proclaiming the puerile bromides of Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay.

Correction: Kaleil Isaza Tuzman e-mails to say that he and his partner, Tom Herman, do not have a direct financial stake in earnings of the documentary I am grateful for the chance to set the record straight.