ACE DVD - Image A+ Sound A (DD) A+ (DTS) Extras C+
VISTA DVD - Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A+
starring Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Tom Sizemore
screenplay by Randall Wallace
directed by Michael Bay
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover I must shamefully admit that I greeted the approach of Pearl Harbor's release with a mixture of moral righteousness and secret anticipation. I knew that no good could come from the intersection of the WWII nostalgia wave and the craven instincts of producer Jerry Bruckheimer; anyone who had seen Top Gun, his earlier effort in military pornography, would have to surmise that his new film's potential for right-wing jingoism was clearly off the scale. These suspicions were confirmed once I saw the trailer, its sickening combination of swelling music, explosions, dashing soldiers and the FDR "Day of Infamy" speech promising propaganda of Riefenstahlian proportions. Anyone who reads me would expect me to give it a good shellacking, and so I hoped for a total outrage to crucify without remorse--reaping me the happy side effect of securing me the moral high ground from which to preach.
But as I prepared for the sanctimonious review that I would surely write, the masochist in me was hoping for everything that my conscience told me to revile. I found the taste of the whip that was the trailer surprisingly hard to resist, promising as it did my total sensory domination by an outside force while ensuring that I would be blissfully liberated from making my own decisions. The kick of this was intensified by my knowledge that this would be wrong, my horror at the film's ideology spiking the awesomeness of the fascist master that would relieve me of my self. So even as I planned to attack the film for its totalitarianism, I hoped to thrill to it at the same time, making me even worse than the high-flown bluenose I already was.
Given that my desires combined the worst tendencies of the left wing with those of the right, it should please you to know that I was disappointed on both counts. Pearl Harbor turned out to so flimsy, so haphazard, and so utterly convictionless, that I could muster neither outrage nor adoration. Its ideological thrust proved so weak and perfunctory that any attempts at counter-attack seemed entirely redundant: as it was quite obvious that the filmmakers themselves didn't understand their own rhetoric, there seemed little chance that anyone else would, either. And the aesthetics and dramatics that should have ensured my submission proved to be so slack that only the most timid masochist would have been cowed by their flaccid menace.
Instrumental in Pearl Harbor's glorious failure is the fact that it exists solely to satisfy Michael Bay's desire to wreak photogenic destruction. As far as the actual bombing is concerned, it simply offered an unparalleled opportunity to play a vindictive god, both within the realm of narrative fantasy and in coordinating the vast industrial might required to enact it. (One imagines Bay cursing the Japanese for having thought of it first and vowing to upstage them once and for all.) That might sound like business as usual, given his brawny oeuvre, but there was something in his way this time: the fact that the event he wishes to film carries a freight-load of emotional and historical baggage that might make his desire to enjoy the carnage seem a tad demented. So he had to pretend--even to himself--that he had nothing but altruism in his heart, and wished to solemnly commemorate the horrors of December 7, 1941. But the repressed has a nasty habit of returning, and Bay's total indifference to the issues surrounding the attack was bound to ride roughshod over whatever impeded his progress to his explosive Holy Grail.
Simply put, Bay suddenly found himself with a flag in his hand, and felt obliged to wave it--not because he believed in what it represented, but because it's what you do with flags. Anyone with such a tenuous grip on a project's central iconography shouldn't be let anywhere near a camera, for the results are likely to be a black hole of indifference from which not even meaning itself can escape. So to pad the hours leading to and from the money shots, he and screenwriter Randall Wallace have cobbled together a story that only marginally touches on the war and its most infamous day.
Brash, confident Rafe (Ben Affleck) and quiet, by-the-book Danny (Josh Hartnett), are a pair of boyhood chums (no patriotic film is complete without one) possessed of ace piloting skills; Rafe loves comely nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), and goes off to fly in the under-funded Eagle Squadron. While Danny and Evelyn get relocated to sunny, idyllic Pearl Harbor, Rafe volunteers to fight the Nazis and gets shot down. Quickly, Danny picks up the romantic slack, then Rafe returns. Much jealousy ensues. When the bombing happens, the film is only too quick to separate Evelyn from her men, and the question remains: which one is going to survive and get the girl?
While the film tries its damnedest to entwine this threadbare storyline with the myth of good old Yankee fighting spirit, it isn't fooling anyone. The events are rushed through so quickly that one can't help but be suspicious of its function. Despite some truly embarrassing courtship on the part of Rafe and Evelyn--involving dyslexia, painful injections and a broken nose--it's impossible to believe they're in love, because things happen too fast for them to get to know each other. The supporting characters--pilots and nurses--offer little true support, split as they are into two camps of desperate clichés (stutterer and a Lothario on one side, a dreamer and bookworm on the other). Beyond some modern sex-craziness and the presence of colour and sound, one begins to think that this is not 2001, or even 1941, but 1915, and await the scene where Rafe rescues Lillian Gish from menacing carpetbaggers
Once you get past the idiocy of the plot, it becomes obvious that the filmmakers haven't the most nuanced sense of history, either. WWII turns out to begin and end with America's humiliation and vengeance--which, even after the bombing, were pretty pitiful compared to what Europe had to deal with. Despite the constant harping on the misery of Rafe's Eagle Squadron days, we see almost nothing of the horrible carnage that supposedly occurs offscreen. While there is a bit of PC ass-covering on this front, such as the pathetic inclusion of Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a cook whose valour is intended to make us forget the racism of the time--you better believe that this is a film of white American he-men making their mark on the world.
Unfortunately, they have to twist through hoops to avoid touching on America's neutrality prior to the attack; their assertion of Yank virtue over insurmountable odds is a tad unconvincing when you consider that they entered the war only when they were at risk. Left with the not-inconsiderable task of explaining this away, the film chooses to bury these facts while pumping up the rhetoric in order to obscure them. There was a series of wartime propaganda shorts called Why We Fight; this is more on the level of, "Why we fight?"
All of these feeble sentiments ultimately disintegrate in the centrepiece attack sequence, where the purposes of the director become frighteningly transparent. One would expect a true patriot to show the horrible plight of the seaman and pilots as they are ruthlessly killed by the hated Japanese; Michael Bay has other designs: incredibly, he takes the point of view of the bombs as they drop and the torpedoes as they streak to their targets. This is followed up by the exquisite spectacle of boats collapsing; even peppered with the minor nuisance of the sailors clinging to their hulls as they sink, the effect is awe at the power that could destroy such mighty vessels--and indifference to the writhing bodies of the men who manned them. Everything leading to and from this production number is blown away in the aftershock, reducing its ruse to rubble.
For lefties like me, this turns out to be loads of fun. It's not every day that you get to watch half-hearted right-wingers self-destruct before your very eyes. olstered by the intermittent laughter of incredulous audience members, I enjoyed watching this piece of propaganda fail in its attempts to pull a fast one on us. I might have had some moral qualms about the martial war-is-swell platitudes--particularly after seeing the army recruitment kiosk set up in the theatre--but I don't really believe that anybody's buying in very deep. The spoiled pudding that is the plot is merely the pretext for the violent plum of the bombing attack, and it goes through everyone's system without anyone noticing. The structure could be flipped over into a Communist epic about valiant soldiers on the Eastern Front, and nobody would notice so long as there was plenty of action--a sad testament to the fickleness of audiences, but it at least puts them on a higher level than the idiots that the filmmakers believe them to be.
So, while I had to ultimately conclude that my expectations were ignoble and suspect, there was redemption for my sins. The failure of Pearl Harbor freed me from what was the whole S&M dynamic that got me into the theatre in the first place; I could neither dictate to the mob from above nor be dictated to from below. I was levelled with the rest of an audience that was more than I expected, and so it served a valuable purpose: that while you might not go broke underestimating the intelligence of the public, you won't entirely subdue them, either. The last thing I expected from Jerry Bruckheimer was hope, and I am delighted that he gave it to me--entirely in spite of himself. Originally published: May 30, 2001.
THE DVD - 6OTH ANNIVERSARY COMMEMORATIVE EDITION
by Bill Chambers Michael Bay films have one thing going for them, and that's how well they transfer to DVD. The format does wonders for Pearl Harbor--one watches in anticipation of the next pretty picture or sonic jolt, even while being numbed by the film's relentless pyrotechnics. THX-approved, the film has been spread out over two discs in a reference-quality, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of mesmerizing detail and intense, enchanting colour. (Cinematographer John Schwartzman shot Pearl Harbor in outmoded three-strip Technicolor, which is why the primary hues of the image burst forth.) Lighter-than-average grain intrudes on the occasional shot, but that's a moot observation.
The audio is rather forceful as well, to be expected. Presented in duelling Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 mixes, DTS wins out; though Dolby is no slouch, its handling of the rear channels during the big action scenes is clumsier and more obvious--discrete to a fault. DTS gives the whooshing planes and whatnot their sweeping due. Bass is ample throughout regardless of your listening preference/option. Pearl Harbor has also been outfitted with the first-ever "Dolby Headphone" track, a stereo mix configured to approximate the 5.1 environment. It's uncannily effective--the early-Nineties gimmick "Q Sound" all over again. (Aside: I presume that earbuds would significantly lessen the effect.)
A "60th Anniversary Commemorative Edition" (that's sixty years since Pearl Harbor, not Pearl Harbor), the disc is nonetheless light on special features. The singular DVD producer David Prior is hard at work on a "VISTA Series", 4-disc (!) package for release next summer that will contain, among other goodies, an R-rated Director's Cut of the film, so you may want to save your pennies until then. The commemorative's extras, found on Disc 2, include: "Journey to the Screen: The Making of Pearl Harbor" (47 mins.), a schmaltzy doc that improves whenever it gets down to the nitty-gritty how-they-did-it type stuff (Michael Bay tells us that Industrial Light & Magic is second-only to the US military in computer power), and there's a classic, seemingly incidental shot of Ben Affleck at boot camp--looking really put out; the moving, if unsurprising and jingoistic, History Channel account of December 7, 1941, "Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor"; the theatrical and teaser trailers (the latter in 5.1), each of which has had its music altered--no longer are they underscored by a passage of Hans Zimmer's music from The Thin Red Line; Faith Hill's typically ridiculous video for "There You'll Be" (in 5.1); a commercial for National Geographic's "Beyond the Movie: Pearl Harbor" (a bonus item if you buy the Pearl Harbor Gift Set); and a DVD-ROM-exclusive "Definitive Bibliography," a fancy way of saying weblinks. Inside the "60th Anniversary" box (fashioned to resemble an antique tome and opening in a booklike manner), you'll find loose pages of ads, coupons, and a chapter listing. Originally published: December 3, 2001.
THE DVD - VISTA SERIES
A comprehensive DVD package that goes some way towards redeeming a shallow movie, the Michael Bay/David Prior-produced VISTA Series edition of Pearl Harbor provides home video fireworks in time for the Fourth of July. Let's begin by discussing the third platter of this four-disc set and its litany of vignettes, which fall under the umbrella heading The Film. There you'll find a "Production Diary" containing ten elegant featurettes comprised of behind-the-scenes footage shot during principal photography, seven of which have optional commentary by Bay wherein he actually relates the on-screen destruction of several battleships to the Hawaii episode of "The Brady Bunch". The trivia that pops up as handsome text within the bottommost black band of these letterboxed segments is much more lucid than Bay, though nothing is quite so enlightening as Bay's conniption in the aforementioned "Battleship Row"--we see that he directs exactly like the cliché megaphone totalitarian.
Another sub-section, "Boot Camp," gives pause: ever since Saving Private Ryan, it has been chic to enlist war-movie actors in basic training, but why bother for Pearl Harbor, a picture that doesn't ask its cast to behave like human beings, much less trained military personnel--a film full of CGI stuntmen and bereft of extensive combat sequences, at that? Nevertheless, the two "Boot Camp" shorts are squirmy fun, especially when watched in succession: in "Soldiers' Boot Camp," Ben Affleck (seeming the most perturbed), Josh Hartnett, and Ewan Bremner are endlessly abused by drill instructors in the Ranger 25th Infantry Division; over at "Officers' Boot Camp," Alec Baldwin lives the life of Riley, sharing laughter with the other out-of-shape trainees.
A montage of well-transferred Super8 material shot by Mark Palansky for purposes of the film's faux newsreels, plus Pearl Harbor's teaser and theatrical trailers (5.1, both), round out the Film portion of Disc Three. Moving on to The History, we have a pair of History Channel specials: "One Hour Over Tokyo" (50 mins.), a solid piece about Jimmy Dolittle's raid on Japan, and "Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor", recycled from Pearl Harbor's Commemorative DVD. Finally, the testimony of one Ruth Erickson, NC, USN is re-enacted over a 6-minute montage of period photos with "Oral History: The Recollections of a Pearl Harbor Nurse."
Interactivity--at which Prior excels--is the name of the game on Disc Four. Selecting Visual Effects, one can deconstruct Pearl Harbor's centrepiece siege from a variety of angles: without dialogue (probably best), as a series of storyboards and animatics, as storyboards and animatics with voiceover from (credited) Pearl Harbor survivors... The list of combinations goes on. (I was partial to the three-angle composite showing the final film, stuff shot on location with a camcorder, and the storyboards, all scored to commentary from Eric Brevig, the visual effects supervisor; storyboard artist Robert Consing has also recorded optional commentary for this feature.) Meanwhile, an Interactive Timeline spreads clips from Charles Kiselyak's objective and often harrowing documentary When Worlds Collide: From Perry to Pearl Harbor (narrated by David Ogden Stiers) out over just that, a clickable timeline that starts in the 1800s and ends in the 1940s. (There is a "continuous play" function for those who would prefer not to view it piecemeal.) Capping off the fourth platter is a 6-part still gallery (curiously, the film's title is missing from a lot of the publicity art), the previously released ROM exclusive "The Definitive Pearl Harbor Bibliography," and pages of DVD credits.
Pearl Harbor is again split into two parts on DVD, with everything after the attack shucked onto Disc Two. The VISTA Series Pearl Harbor marks the debut, however, of the film's R-rated Director's Cut, with sound and image configurations (and qualitative assessments) otherwise remaining the same. Anyone who bemoaned the PG-13 sanitation that Pearl Harbor underwent in post (myself among you) will grow nostalgic for that version as they bear witness to Bay's inserts of flying limbs, exploding bodies, and a long close-up of a waxy severed head. It's not that the reinstated violence is gratuitous, it's that it's graceless, as if Herschell Gordon Lewis were on second unit. The three separate commentaries, on the other hand, are each great: in the first, Bay and film historian Jeanine Basinger (one of Bay's former professors) wildly delude one another; Affleck, Hartnett, and Baldwin (together for their session) entertain the hell out of us in the second; and for the third yak track, cinematographer John Schwartzman, production designer Nigel Phelps, costume designer Michael Kaplan, art director Martin Laing, and composer Hans Zimmer sling a few arrows at Bay on the sly. (Schwartzman second-guesses an editing decision off the bat, for instance, and Kaplan remembers Michael Bay doubting the period wardrobe's absence of blue jeans.)
Faith Hill's "There You'll Be" video, the 47-minute making-of "Journey to the Screen," a commercial for National Geographic's "Beyond the Movie: Pearl Harbor," and a truly hilarious Easter Egg (a gag reel in which Hartnett helps Affleck and Bay repent for the Animal Crackers moment in Armageddon)--you'll find all of the above on the second disc. Matching the aesthetic hollowness of Michael Bay's vision, Pearl Harbor: VISTA Series is encased in a cardboard slip meant to resemble leather; I found the discs difficult to release from their individual covers without fingerprinting them but admire the gatefold's interior design, which incorporates FDR's "Day of Infamy" address on an aged sheet of paper, a strap securing 4" x 6" reproductions of Pearl Harbor's vintage-look one-sheets, and a booklet detailing the content of the four discs, some of it perhaps phantom: The insert's table of contents denotes a demonstration in support of widescreen that eluded me on every one of the discs.
- 60th Anniversary Commemorative Edition
183 minutes; PG-13; 2.35:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, English DTS 5.1, English Dolby Headphone, French DD 5.1; CC; Spanish subtitles; 2 DVD-9s; Region One; Touchstone
- VISTA Series
184 minutes; R; 2.35:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, English DTS 5.1, English Dolby Headphone, French DD 5.1; CC; English, Spanish subtitles; 4 DVD-9s; Region One; Touchstone