Sell everything to buy the “pearl of great price,” the Gospel tells us (Mt. 13:46). Disney did exactly that, mortgaging the Mouse House for upwards of $140 million to produce this year’s summer blockbuster, Pearl Harbor. It bought a pearl of pure plastic.
No, “Pearl Harbor” does not redefine the boundaries of terrible. It accomplishes exactly what producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay intended. Balancing “what they have done” against “what they have failed to do,” however, gives a strong sense of an industry entering into a suicide pact with itself. (Alarmist? Perhaps. But think: how many films released in this past year have you really been eager to see? How many shelves in the video store do you routinely scan before you find something for an evening’s entertainment? You see my point.)
What exactly have Bruckheimer and Bay done? They created a commercially viable product, or more accurately a viable concept. The marketing strategy began with “leaked” stories of cost-overruns and a pre-release cover story in Newsweek, and matured into a Pearl Harbor Web site at amazon.com, a display of similar Pearl Harbor books and memorabilia at Barnes and Noble superstores, a premier aboard an aircraft carrier and a new line of G.I. Joe dolls in authentic Pearl Harbor-era uniforms. Even if domestic ticket sales fall flat, the franchising rights for piggyback products and marketing campaigns, plus overseas sales, pay-per-view, in-flight and cable deals will keep pouring black ink into Disney’s ledger books.
So, you may properly ask, “What’s the problem?” From its earliest days, Hollywood has always been a business. Idealistic writers and directors must learn to work within the system, if they ever hope to get the chance to shoot their masterpiece. Some starve, some go back to Iowa to write the great American novel, and many others simply sell out and leave their artistic aspirations in the garage, next to the Ferrari. The industry runs on publicity and promotion, not creative genius, and it always has. Yet even within that commercial whirlwind, for nearly a century Hollywood turned out a remarkable body of truly excellent films. The old moguls believed that if they made interesting movies, tailored to a particular segment of the audience, they could cajole people into seeing them.
The rules have changed. The “product” has become less important than its marketing strategy. “Pearl Harbor” represents another example, one of the more flagrant, of putting the commercial cart before the cinematic horse.
“Pearl Harbor” will sell tickets, but probably not as many as B. and B. might have hoped. The reviews have been mediocre to scathing, but reviews are immaterial. Quality assessment carries little weight in this business. The pre-release publicity has carefully constructed an “event.” The fact of the film’s release becomes more important than the film itself. No one wants to be left out of the Pearl Harbor mania. Even if people read the reviews, curiosity will drive them into the theaters to see if it is as bad as all those grumpy reviewers say.
Teenagers do not read reviews, or much else, but they do buy tickets, and they will love “Pearl Harbor.” The computer-generated special effects and the multi-track sound recording precisely target the video-game and MTV generation. The editing presumes the attention span of a gnat. When the air raid finally starts, after an hour of dithering romance and nostalgia, the screen comes alive. The rest of the three-hour film serves as packaging for this 40-minute display of technical virtuosity. Older audiences may treat it as a reverential homage to their generation, but younger audiences will come to see the explosions and orange fireballs, and their patience will be richly rewarded. It’s brilliant comic-book Bam! and Kapow!
Brilliant but derivative. This kind of multi-million-dollar potboiler relies on scenes proven as crowd pleasers in earlier movies: farm boys silhouetted against a blazing sunset (“Empire of the Sun”), men trapped below deck as the water rises and sliding across the deck of a sinking ship (“Titanic”), sailors taking machine-gun fire underwater (“Saving Private Ryan”), Zeroes swarming into view slowly as they close in on their target (“The Birds”), hostile fighters roaring between buildings (“Star Wars”), passion on the beach (“From Here to Eternity”), the quasi-documentary eavesdropping on Japanese preparations (“Tora! Tora! Tora!”). And so on and on and on.
What have B. and B. failed to do? While they have plundered the tradition for the familiar and proven crowd-pleasing technical effects, they have reduced storyline to insignificance. Not only does the script by Randall Wallace creak with cliché and implausibility, it offers some of the most leaden dialogue this side of “Valley of the Dolls.” A pilot believed dead returns to his loved one with all the intensity of “Honey, I’m home.” The lovers talk cutesy, the soldiers bravado and the officers ponderous, as though they are rehearsing phrases to be chiseled on their sarcophagi in the Hôtel des Invalides. Since the pasteboard characters offer so little to engage the audience, the film makers massage the emotions through the pompous, intrusive, relentless musical score of Hans Zimmer, whose work makes a John Williams “Superman” soundtrack seem austere by comparison.
With an investment of this size, controversy must be avoided at all costs. Striving for total political correctness comes with a price tag, however. The P.C. subplots add centrifugal force to an already diffuse story. The classic World War II movies generally featured an ethnic and regional mix for the buddies at the front, just to show how in times of crisis Americans pull together despite their differences. “Pearl Harbor” adds a modern twist. One flyer in the squadron is dyslexic, and another stammers. President Roosevelt (Jon Voight) rises painfully from his wheelchair to demonstrate to the joint chiefs that “it can be done.”
Not to be outdone by the menfolk, with or without disability, the Navy nurses supply their own share of combat heroics. They receive the Purple Heart en masse in a closing scene, but aside from one fatality, the most serious damage they take in the movie seems to be smudged eye-liner. In a throwback to the tradition of diversity, a peripheral subplot centers around the historical figure of Dorrie Miller (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the African-American ensign who received the Navy Cross for manning a machine gun during the attack, even though he had been previously restricted to galley duty in the segregated Navy. When given the chance, he performs bravely and gains respect. It’s a great story, but it belongs in another movie.
The Japanese present a daunting challenge to the P.C. police. Admiral Yamamoto (Mako) appears as a thoughtful, compassionate man who undertakes his mission as a desperate move to save the empire. After orchestrating the deaths of 3,000 men without a declaration of war, he appears on screen briefly to call off a third wave of the attack for reasons known only to himself and to surmise that he may have awakened a “sleeping giant.” In scriptwriting, it’s a central premise that the stature of the hero grows in proportion to the evil of the enemy he or she confronts. With ambiguous adversaries like Yamamoto and the warlords, the conflict seems an unfortunate misunderstanding.
As a result of the script’s studied evenhandedness, Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), the buddy-heroes, become equally ambiguous figures. While people die by the hundreds during the attack, they commandeer a couple of fighters and take on the Imperial Navy. Dressed in Hawaiian shirts, they whoop and holler during the dogfight like good ol’ boys at a stockcar race. If it’s all a game and they have no fear to overcome, where is the heroism? Likewise, if Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) can switch her affections easily from one buddy to another, how deep is her love for either? What loss will she face if either is killed in combat?
If liberals take delight in the pervasive P. C., conservatives will revel in the old-fashioned flag-waving patriotism. The film cannot end with defeat. Bloodied but unbeaten, the nation rallies behind President Roosevelt, who insists on a raid on Tokyo. Volunteering for what may be a suicide mission offers Rafe and Danny another go at a grand adventure. Col. James Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) repeats relentlessly that their mission is directed toward military targets. No one mentions the possibility that the raid might also have included an element of “terror” bombing. The president and joint chiefs might have given the raid top priority both to undermine the confidence of the Japanese people in their warlords’ assurance that their island fortress was impregnable and to bolster American morale by offering a sweet foretaste of revenge.
A good film begins with a strong script and solid characters that an audience can care about. “Pearl Harbor” started with special effects and worked backward to find some excuse to put them on the screen. If you had $140 million, would you rather spend it on a script or a fireball?
Editor’s note: Father Blake’s “Moving On” (12/9/00) was honored as last year’s Best Review by the Catholic Press Association.