I went to see Pearl Harbor last night to see what all the fuss was about.
They say making movies is like going to war and there is certainly a tremendous irony in the fact that a film of one of the most emotive, damaging and brutal events in 20th century American history probably required about the same amount of man hours and had more planning than the original event itself. And the reason we make war movies and then go and see them is that they are the height of drama – we are fascinated by the extremes of the human condition: the harsh, cold violence of bodies being ripped apart in the pursuit of justice and glory intercut with the warm, soft inter-twining of emotions and flesh in the pursuit of happiness and redemption.
But for all this Pearl Harbor disappoints…and then lingers. I think it disappoints for two reasons. Firstly the story is not very good. It?s OK but it?s hardly got the focus and the majestic sweep of a David Lean epic has it? The actual attack at Pearl Harbor was over in an hour or so, consequently every film-maker who has approached the subject attaches it to some other tale to give it a human aspect (Tora! Tora! Tora! would be the exception). In Michael Bay?s movie the story rambles so far and wide that there are scenes in England and China – the characters are forced to do voice overs while they write soppy love letters to each other half a world away. I?ve written enough of these letters in my life to know that even for the two people involved the letters are a shallow and frustrating substitute for real human contact. To boot the love triangle was reported in such detail in pre-release that there were no surprises for the audience in ANY of the plot points until after the last Zero was making its way back to Yamamoto?s fleet which happens about 2 hours after the movie?s started! That?s a tough call for a film-maker to overcome, and let?s face it if you go to see a movie called Pearl Harbor it?s no shock when the Japs start wrecking a lot of American hardware.
Secondly the film fails to achieve a human perspective and I think the prime example of this fault is the much discussed bomb-POV shot seen in the trailer where we watch the Japanese bomb fall from a great height and hurtle downwards towards the doomed Arizona. Supposedly Michael had the idea for the shot in a dream and it?s certainly a cool gag…but it?s also a product of the smart bomb generation. Those futzed images from the Gulf war that we saw of a bomb?s view as it hurtled towards Saddam?s installations and then went to black as the bomb and camera exploded were truly frightening, but mostly because they were anonymous and you never saw a real person – those few seconds of footage were the end result of the most expensive computer game you can buy: not a $200 Playstation but a half billion dollar jet and a million dollar bomb. But the thing which must have made Pearl Harbor (the event) so horrifying was the perspective of the guy standing on deck looking upwards at 500 pounds of perfectly engineered high explosive hurtling towards his head first thing on a Sunday morning. In short I want the sailor’s perspective not the bomb’s.
And here?s the thing I really don?t understand, and yes I am British so maybe there?s a detail I?m missing here, Pearl Harbor was an astonishingly bold and successful attack on the American fleet which, if I?m not mistaken, is a Naval unit. Now Michael Bay has made much in the press of how he wanted to tell the story of Pearl Harbor really like it was for the people who were there, so why is most of the story about a couple of ARMY flyers? (If they were members of the USAF I apologize, they do make reference to being Army pilots in the film, but my point still sticks). When is someone going to tell this story from the perspective of the hapless matelots about to take a dive, a sort of Das Boot on Battleship Row? And no, I don?t think Cuba Gooding?s short moment was that story.
And while we?re talking details here…am I the only person who has an issue with two FIGHTER pilots being sent on the Dolittle raid as pilots of twin engined BOMBERS? This is rather like asking Lance Armstrong to race across town on a Harley to deliver an urgent message because he?s the only guy who?s won a bike race that we know of.
Interestingly the night before seeing Pearl Harbor I watched an A&E documentary on Iwo Jima. The footage was poorly shot (I guess it?s difficult holding the camera steady when 20,000 Japanese people are shooting at you), the film was in black and white, the music was sparing, the voice-over was from a subdued former marine (Gene Hackman) and some weary and emotional old geezers who actually spent time in the foxholes of that ugly little island, but it could not have been (literally) more gut wrenching. Listening to a man describe how he watched his best friend try to hold his intestines from slithering all over the beach as he stumbled across the lava ash to his death is very disturbing. And this is what war is really about – the biting horror of continuous personal tragedy. We don?t need the detail but watching Kate Beckinsale trying to get her shit together seen through blur tar lenses as brutalized men stagger into the hospital at 60 frames per second does a disservice to her acting, the horror of the men who survived and died and us viewers who may only ever see war through the eyes of a film director. Michael, please don?t approach a scene of this magnitude with the slow motion soft focus approach that we use for soap commercials – it makes it tougher for us other video / commercials guys to get taken seriously as directors!
I?m disappointed at the end of the day for Michael, for Disney and for all of us. The much vaunted $130 million budget could have made 10 really great smaller movies or another Lion King movie and some spare change over for good deeds. If you want to see the truth about Pearl Harbor watch Tora! Tora! Tora! – though it too is overlong – it?s historically much more accurate, there’s genuine tension in the build up, there are some flying, crashing scenes that are REAL, truly awesome and better than anything in Bay?s movie, the Japanese admirals get to walk AND talk and Yamamoto?s ?sleeping giant? speech is delivered with true regret and poignancy. If however you want romance and human intrigue with your sinking battleships rent From Here To Eternity.
And death? It doesn?t need to be in your face and blood spatteringly graphic to be truly upsetting and frightening and terribly resonant. Rent Roger Spottiswode?s Under Fire and watch the way in which one of the lead characters is dispatched in an ugly, little incident seen through Nick Nolte?s eyes. This, I think, is how war feels: wasteful, unnecessary, uncontrollable, tawdry and usually pointless.