Like the U.S. Pacific Fleet on, say, Dec. 8, 1941, "Pearl Harbor" has been attacked, struck, set on fire and is taking on water. What's left to torpedo? Randall Wallace's laughable script? Ben Affleck's smarmy acting? Hans Zimmer's turgid music? The special effects, which are not just flat but preposterously out of scale? The extras? The extra extras? The extra extra extras? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, seldom have so many owed so little to so many.
Anyone who goes to see the movie now is likely to feel not just lonely but silly--like one of those sailors director Michael Bay has bobbing around the USS Arizona: They may be up to their necks in oily water and flaming debris, but they can still look up and cheer for Affleck as he valiantly dogfights the Japanese and actually changes his facial expression.
But if one judges a work by the degree to which ambition is realized, Bay's movie is probably a masterpiece. Isn't it exactly what he and producer Jerry Bruckheimer set out to make? It co-opts the nobility of a national tragedy, massages the facts in pursuit of box office and exists solely within a bubble of cinema. With Spielbergian hubris, it arranges a world war to fulfill the childhood dreams of its two principal characters (Affleck and Josh Hartnett). It warps the antiwar message of "A Farewell to Arms" into a much more commercially palatable, if ultimately indigestible, romance. And it has nothing to do with anything but other war movies.
Yes, yes, veterans have watched it and found it wanting. So what? A blockbuster movie that alters historical fact? I'm shocked--shocked!!--that mendacity is being practiced by a Hollywood studio. What's really shocking is how much everyone seems to care. But that, my fellow Americans, is because we get our only lasting sense of history from cinema, and the unspoken fear surrounding "Pearl Harbor" is that it will go on to become the definitive version of events. If so, we've got no one to blame but ourselves.
Being out of the country when "Pearl Harbor" premiered, all I saw were English newspaper stories on its critical assassination (bearing such gleeful headlines as "U.S. Critics Bomb 'Pearl Harbor"'). Of course, the British still think Ealing Studios is going to rise up and conquer the cultural world, so the sentiments are a little dubious.
But since catching up with those scathing reviews, I've seen few complaints about the way the film feels compelled to educate its audience. It's as if World War II is so obscure and irrelevant to younger moviegoers and they're so poorly schooled that every blessed fact has to be resurrected, simplified, blenderized and sweetened. Who are these Japanese anyway? Why are they so mad? Who's that president in the wheelchair? As played by Jon Voight, it could be Eleanor Roosevelt.
I heard a man on a radio call-in show the other day saying that, well, yeah, "Pearl Harbor" was unspeakable rubbish, but it offered his children an authentic sense of life in the wartime '40s.
At the risk of disillusioning a seemingly innocent if equally simple-minded soul, what "Pearl Harbor" offers is an authentic update on what life was like in wartime '40s movies. The passel of nurses led by Kate Beckinsale, for instance--lust bunnies all--are military health personnel as envisioned by Penthouse Forum. Oddly enough, when push comes to shove, Affleck's character refuses to sleep with Beckinsale's, saving himself for peacetime and thus reordering the country's sexual history. And racial history: Cuba Gooding Jr.'s black seaman is treated, all alone, by Beckinsale's white (very white) nurse in a situation that seems more conducive to a '40s lynching than the intimate, if dramatically useless, moment the two characters share.
But such is the fun that Hollywood has with period pieces, imposing contemporary values on the past and thus correcting it. If "Pearl Harbor" is a history lesson, it's a history lesson about movies. A weird one, but we're trying to be kind. Affleck, paired with Hartnett instead of Matt Damon for once, operates easily within the homoerotic zone he has come to call his own. Gooding again plays a precedent-setting Navy man (as he did in "Men of Honor") and engages in a boxing match that's strongly reminiscent of "The Sand Pebbles"--while veteran actor Mako, the fighter in "The Sand Pebbles," appears as a Japanese admiral. When Alec Baldwin, as Jimmy Doolittle, tells Affleck's character Rafe, "You remind me of myself 15 years ago," it might as well be one actor talking to another. And neither should be happy. But such are the things you think about while waiting--wishing--for someone to drop the bomb.