I remember hearing a quote somewhere about the extent that a healthy amount of religion and patriotism should be injected into our own personal lives, and the one who said the quote commented that both are great things to have in one’s life as long as they are done in good faith and with a sense of humor. Essentially, it is not a negative thing in life to be religious and patriotic, just as long as you remain humble and respectful about it. Unfortunately, in our culture, we do not live such subtle lives, and in many cases, people either show too much or too little of either, which are both corrosive to society at large. Too much patriotism, for example, can lead to jingoistic and exclusionary nationalism, which has led to some dark periods in world history. A severe lack of pride in one’s home and society can also achieve the opposite effect and lead an individual down a nihilistic route towards anarchy. Both are dangerous, and it’s a fine line that our culture constantly has to balance in order to function for it’s citizens. As is often the case, cinema has been an effective tool for pushing forward national agendas, with the intent of promoting exactly what the country expects of it’s citizenry. Propaganda films have been a part of cinematic history ever since the invention of the medium itself, and has been used throughout the 20th and 21st century to drive national efforts that otherwise would have been hard to manage without the broad reach that movies can provide. In many cases, propaganda has propelled some terrible political movements in the past, but not all of it’s applications have been negative. During World War II for example, the combination of wartime propaganda and the talents of Hollywood actually helped the nation come together behind the war effort that eventually saw victory for the Allied forces; something that might have seen a different outcome if our nation had been more divided on the war. There are good uses of propaganda, but there are also bad uses as well, particularly as the quote says above, when someone uses it in bad faith.
When we look back on the experience of World War II, as we lose more and more people who experienced it first hand every progressive year, what we understand becomes more and more reliant on the artifacts that are left behind. The personal accounts, as harrowing as they may, from the soldiers who lived it begin to not be as captivating as the propaganda that has endued beyond the war. A soldier’s story presents the ugly side of war; the sleepless nights, the panic in the thick of battle, the wounds both external and internal, and the many, many defeats that made victory seem unreachable at times. Propaganda presents the glory of victory, and for many people, including the soldiers who eventually came home, that’s the thing that they wanted to promote in a post-War world. Unfortunately, it also had the effect of making the culture at large falsely believe that it was invincible, and that led to an unhealthy amount of patriotic fervor in the decades that followed. It’s the kind of thinking that led to a proliferation in the armed forces despite being in peacetime, which then President Eisenhower decried as a “military industrial complex.” This also led to a period called the Red Scare where people tried to use patriotic fervor to silence those whose ideologies didn’t line up their own agenda, and it prematurely ended the careers of many people, especially in Hollywood with the infamous Blacklist. Over time, as attitudes shifted back the other way due to the quagmire of the Vietnam War, the wartime film began to fall out of favor because they were viewed as propaganda tools of a dangerous militaristic view of the past. However, as the years past, and more soldiers who served in World War II were reaching their twilight years, many people wanted to find some way to respectfully honor the service they gave while not appearing to promote the necessity for armed conflict. In 1998, Steven Spielberg released Saving Private Ryan, a movie that managed to bridge that gap, portraying an accurate picture of the atrocities of war while at the same time honoring the sacrifice of those who fought in it. And with Private Ryan, Hollywood found that special movie that balanced patriotism and realism, revitalizing the war film with a modern sensibility. But, as we know about Hollywood, once one movie succeeds at something, it’s only inevitable that someone else is going to try to replicate it. And unfortunately, this is where the good faith patriotism of something like Saving Private Ryan gives way to the bad faith exploitation of a Pearl Harbor.
Pearl Harbor’s production came about in a confluence of different factors at the turn of the millennium. Like I previously mentioned, Saving Private Ryan was a major influence on getting the movie greenlit, but it had less so to do with the message behind the movie and more so to do with it’s substantial $217 million gross at the box office, as well as the 5 Oscars it picked up (including Best Director for Spielberg). The movie was greenlit at Touchstone Pictures, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, with uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer behind it. Bruckheimer had brought his action movie centric sensibilities to Touchstone and produced two back to back hits for them with a rising star director named Michael Bay, which were The Rock (1996) and Armageddon (1998). What Bruckheimer, and especially the executives at Disney, liked about Bay the most was that he could deliver big, expensive movies on time and on budget, which was valuable to bottom line conscious investors who wanted to get the most for their money. Both The Rock and Armageddon, despite mixed to negative reviews, managed to make a healthy profit for the studio, and that gave the Bruckheimer/Bay team more sway over future projects. When the success of Saving Private Ryan proved that their was an audience for gritty, R-rated war movies out there, it convinced Disney CEO Michael Eisner to jump on the bandwagon and approve development for a big wartime epic of their own. Pearl Harbor was coming on the heels of a decade that saw a brief revival in the historical epic genre. With movies like Private Ryan, as well as The English Patient (1996), Braveheart (1995) and the biggest of them all, Titanic (1997), Hollywood was suddenly finding that people were happily consuming big, large scale films that ran 3 hours long or more. Up to this point, Disney was one of the few studios that had yet to have their own historical epic, and they were now poised to jump into the fray in a big way. Unfortunately for them, the gamble would not pan out like they had hoped and instead, Pearl Harbor was one of the movies that effectively killed off the historical epic as a viable genre in Hollywood.
Though I have talked mostly about the influence that Saving Private Ryan had on Pearl Harbor’s development, I should also point out that it has a fair amount of influence it owes to the movie Titanic as well. And in particular, the piggybacking of Titanic is where the movie really becomes an embarrassing misfire. At the center of the film is a love triangle, between two hot shot pilots (played by Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett) and the army nurse that they both have affection for (played by Kate Beckinsale). To show just how uneven the movie is as a whole, the love story takes up the first 70 minutes of the 3 hour runtime before the attack on Pearl Harbor actually happens. It’s roughly the same amount of time devoted to the build up to iceberg strike in Titanic, but there’s a huge difference between how the two movies use that time. In Titanic, director James Cameron does devote the first half of the movie to bringing his two ill fated lovers together and endearing them to us as an audience. But, their whirlwind romance also takes the audience on a tour of all parts of the ship itself, which itself is on an ill-fated collision course. So, while the love story is central, it also functions to build the atmosphere, with scenes like the juxtaposition between the banquet on the upper decks and the party in the lower decks putting us on that ship with the characters themselves. No such care is given with Pearl Harbor. It is an achingly shallow love story that feels unconnected with anything of real importance with the actual event. The characters of Rafe (Affleck) and Danny (Hartnett) do not go on a self-discovery journey like Kate Winslet’s Rose does in Titanic. They are already pre-set archetypes just fighting over a girl, who herself is barely distinguishable as a character. What makes this love story so insulting is that it takes precedence over the actual build up to the attack itself. The movie keeps cutting to intelligence officers learning about advancements of the Japanese navy, with Dan Ackroyd (for some reason) cast in the role. We also see brief glimpses of the Japanese themselves preparing for battle, in a half-hearted attempt to appear even-handed on their portrayal, which doesn’t work because again, they are merely archetypes. But all this just seems like Michael Bay spinning plates for an hour so he can get to what he really wants to do; blowing shit up.
Truth be told, when the movie does get to the actual attack itself, it does finally start to come alive. Michael Bay, for all his faults, is an expert craftsman, and he manages to depict the attack on Pearl Harbor with an impressive sense of scale. But even here, the movie doesn’t work as well as it thinks it does. While there are some really impressive moments captured on screen, including actual pyrotechnic explosions ignited on real battleships, it at times feels more exploitative of what happened than actually presenting a genuine portrayal of the day’s events. In particular, the movie features one too many indulgent Bay moments, where the director just ends up showing off. One of the most famous of these is the famous falling bomb shot that was featured heavily in the movie’s trailer. Using heavy amounts of CGI, this shot in particular starts off from the sky showing one of the Japanese war planes releasing it’s payload. Instead of cutting away, the camera then follows behind the bomb as it drops down to it’s target below, either the USS Arizona or the USS Oklahoma, one of the many that sank that day. It’s a big epic shot that director’s like Michael Bay believes as a shining example of their talents as a filmmaker. But the problem is, that shot shows an actual moment that happened in real life, and it just comes across as exploiting real tragedy for the sake of artistic indulgence. Going back to Titanic, James Cameron makes you feel for the hundreds of unknown faces aboard the ship as it sinks, because we see the terror in their eyes, helping us to see the reality of their situation. No such care is given to showing all the soldiers, pilots, and sailors coming under fire from the hailstorm of bullet fire in Pearl Harbor. They are just pawns in greater scheme of things within the movie.
Though I don’t think it was the intention of Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer, but their lack of attention to the actual bravery of those who were there at Pearl Harbor in many ways is as disrespectful to the memory of the people who died that day than anything else. In the movie, we get big swooping shots of the mayhem, but the people caught underneath the action are just faceless extras, that the movie almost seems to delight in slaughtering throughout. Again, this is not what Bay intended and I’m sure he wanted to go in respectful of those who died. But the fact is, his strengths as a director is ill-suited for this kind of movie. He is best suited for escapist entertainment, where stakes are nowhere near as high. But, when he applies his indulgences to a real tragedy, it belittles the true history in a way that just feels wrong. It’s compounded by the fact that the movie really has no direction in it’s story. The aforementioned love story really just hits pause so the attack scene can play out, and then the movie awkwardly tries to restart it again thereafter. It also doesn’t help that the characters are so thinly drawn that you end up not caring who lives and who dies by the end. And this includes a cast with a lot of actors who would go on to better things, like Michael Shannon in an early role and the future Mrs. Affleck, Jennifer Garner, in a blink and you’ll miss it supporting role. Perhaps the most egregious example of wasted casting is in the inclusion of a real life hero named Dorie Miller, a low ranking African-American naval cook who broke ranks and commandeered artillery aboard his under siege battleship and managed to successfully shoot down a couple Japanese planes, saving countless of his fellow officers. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his act of bravery, the first African-American to receive the honor. Private Miller’s story is worthy of a movie on it’s own, and Pearl Harbor did cast the part well with Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. Unfortunately, his presence in the movie is miniscule, and it almost feels like Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer put it in there merely as window-dressing. Pvt. Miller and many other soldiers like him deserved better than to have their true life heroism and sacrifice take a back seat to fictional love triangle that we care nothing about.
It goes back to the question of why exactly did this movie need to be made. It doesn’t honor the people involved in the actual “day of infamy.” It’s love story is shallow and unimaginative. And it offers no real message about the nature of war itself and America’s role in fighting in it. It’s not even good as a piece of propaganda. Michael Bay, for one thing, sure is trying hard to connect his movie with some patriotic fervor. I can’t tell you how many shots there are in this movie where the Stars and Stripes are clearly visible, but it’s a lot. Granted, it takes place at a time when such a thing would have been normal, as patriotism was strongly connected with the war effort, with the Uncle Sam “I Want You” posters plastered seemingly on every wall. But, Bay also throws in a lot of glory shots of the flags and the soldiers and the weapons of war throughout the movie, almost to the point of parody. As the film goes along, these glory shots feel hollow, with a significant tendency towards pandering. The reason why it doesn’t work as well as Michael Bay seems to think it does is because it’s just spotlighting the artifice of what the movie actually represents. Even when the movie first came out 20 years ago, audiences immediately sniffed out what it was trying to be. It was a major studio trying to capitalize on a trend and not understanding that it’s a formula you can’t replicate. Titanic worked because it didn’t try to show off it’s artifice to the audience and instead focused on bringing everything to life in stunning detail. Saving Private Ryan worked because it put us in the life of a soldier without trying to sanitize a thing, and showed us the real graphic cost of war. Touchstone, and by extension Disney, only saw the potential for profit with Pearl Harbor, and didn’t even consider how it would reflect on the legacy of the actual event. Strangely enough, Pearl Harbor came at a time when such a brazen cash grab wouldn’t be viewed as something problematic. It came out on Memorial Day weekend in 2001 to mild box office success and mostly poor reviews. A couple of months later, the 9/11 attacks occurred, with carnage and horrific imagery eerily reminiscent of the Pearl Harbor attack. Suddenly, America was reminded of what such an event feels like, and it ended up refocusing Hollywood on what the right approach is to depicting a horrific national tragedy on the big screen. In particular, Pearl Harbor stood out in this new atmosphere as an example of how not to portray a tragedy on screen.
Overall, the biggest failure of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor is that it teaches no lessons about the events of that day, and instead just stands as another mindless action spectacle. Like the case of Pvt. Dorie Miller, there are so many fascinating stories that could have been told about the events of Pearl Harbor, and instead, the movie just panders an easy to swallow story and message to it’s audience. One thing that I am happy about in the long run is that Pearl Harbor is such a universally reviled movie that nobody is going out of their way to turn it into a propaganda tool for their own agenda. I’m especially glad that the movie came out before the events of 9/11, because if it came out after, you might have had a lot of bad faith propagandists latch onto it and proclaim it falsely as a bright example of American patriotism, thereby using it as a tool in the ever increasingly vapid “culture wars.” Imagine right wing pundits suddenly saying if we don’t like the movie (which most people don’t, left and right) than you hate America, like so many of them have done over the years to a variety of cultural hot buttons. I often hear the claim that movies like Pearl Harbor recall back to a time when America had pride in itself, like the movies made during the war. I’m not saying propaganda movies of the war era are not valid works of art (Casablanca for example). It’s just that many reflected the times they were in and culture is not set in stone. Pearl Harbor‘s jingoistic patriotism works as a detriment and not a positive, and it’s a clear example of how improperly patriotism can be used in the culture at large. I think that it is interesting that in the same year that Pearl Harbor made it to the big screen that Jerry Bruckheimer made another war film starring Josh Hartnett that was more true to the wartime experience; that movie being Black Hawk Down (2001). In that film, the movie focuses solely on the experience of soldiers caught in the middle of a losing battle (a little remembered skirmish in Somalia in 1993), and more accurately depicted the terror or war while at the same time honoring the fighters who were in it. It probably helped that legendary filmmaker Ridley Scott was behind the camera on that one. But like Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down doesn’t revel in it’s cinematic indulgences, and instead presents what happened unvarnished. Pearl Harbor failed because it was trying to please everyone with an easy to digest, PG-13 presentation, and in the end just ended up dishonoring the memory of those who lived through it. Cinema is a powerful propaganda tool, but it’s only used at it’s best when it is built upon honesty and done in good faith. Pearl Harbor was just a dud of a bomb that neither improved the world nor set it on fire.