"What you have to understand about Pearl Harbor is that it was probably the most controversial military event in 20th century history. It's still controversial today. Anyone who takes on a Pearl Harbor movie is going to face that."
--Former Air Force Capt. Jack Green, curator branch, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C., and advisor on the movie "Pearl Harbor."
Michael Bay arrives at the Cary Grant Theater on the Sony lot in Culver City dressed casually in a white, knit shirt open to the chest, faded jeans and scruffy athletic shoes, and takes a seat at a mammoth console. The 37-year-old director is here to coordinate the final sound mixing on Disney's $140-million World War II epic, "Pearl Harbor."
On a large screen before Bay and the sound technicians, Japanese Zeros scream out of the sky in hot pursuit of two American fighter planes that have scrambled to engage the enemy after Japan's sneak attack on Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941.
As the enemy planes swoop in for the kill, American soldiers and sailors, caught off-guard by the early-morning raid, blast away at the incoming Zeros with their rifles, machine guns and shipboard antiaircraft weapons. The screen is filled with men dying, battleships exploding and smoke belching skyward.
The decibel level inside the theater is nearly deafening as the planes spit out their machine-gun fire in a wild roller-coaster chase that threads between burning hangars and sinking ships.
"Wooo! Good shooting boy! Nice shot!" Ben Affleck yells at Josh Hartnett, who star as American fliers in the film.
The sound dies and the theater falls silent. Bay is not pleased by what he hears and looks over at one of the sound mixers.
"We need a lot of work on it," he says. "It kind of goes 'Tut-tut-tut.' It doesn't sound like two planes firing. You definitely need one more."
Another scene unspools--this one of Japanese planes streaking after the American fighters as U.S. servicemen in a tower try to blast the enemy out of the sky.
"I'm not getting that thing where you feel that 'Wow!' " Bay tells the mixers. "We've really got to hit that!"
It is exactly this attention to detail that gives "Pearl Harbor," which opens Friday, its head-pounding, high-octane action, and has turned Michael Bay into what former Disney studio chief Joe Roth calls "the most commercial and winningest moviemaker in the movie business."
Since coming out of rock videos and TV commercials in the mid-1990s, when he drew attention for his vivid visual style, Bay has linked himself with veteran action producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Days of Thunder"), and together they have achieved incredible box office success.
Their first film, "Bad Boys," a 1995 formulaic actioner for Columbia Pictures starring Martin Lawrence and Will Smith, grossed $160 million worldwide and turned the TV actors into stars. "The Rock," an action-filled yarn about a Marine general who takes over Alcatraz starring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage, brought in $300 million for Disney the next year. In 1998, "Armageddon," a theme-park ride starring Bruce Willis as an oil-well driller turned astronaut on a mission to save Earth from an asteroid, raked in $550 million worldwide for the Mouse.
Today, if you mention "a Michael Bay film" to anyone knowledgeable about film, the phrase immediately conjures up an entire genre, much like a Hitchcock or a Capra. How many directors can say that?
Critics may complain of dizziness after watching Bay's staccato editing, wince at the ear-shattering noise, and guffaw at the cliche dialogue that often accompanies the images on screen, but no one can dispute that Bay knows his audience.
"He's got a real keen eye," Bruckheimer said. "His gut is in the heart of the country."
Now, Disney's Touchstone Pictures and Bay are rolling the dice on "Pearl Harbor," with much at stake for both parties.
For Disney, the film is a chance to break out with a live-action summer blockbuster in the midst of a worrying year economically. In March, the Walt Disney Co. announced it was eliminating 4,000 full-time jobs, or 3% of its work force, by the end of the year--the biggest single staff reduction in Disney's history.
For Bay, the film is an ambitious attempt to, at last, be seen as a different type of filmmaker.
After years of being pummeled by critics who see him as a great Satan and symbol of what Newsweek magazine once said was "Hollywood capitulation to mindless, meaningless, razzle-dazzle--a poster boy for the death of cinema," Bay has embraced a subject not only percolating with action--his forte--but packed with controversy, political drama and even a love story that transcends generations.
Jeanine Basinger, who runs the film studies department at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where Bay studied cinema in the mid-1980s, wonders why people are so quick to judge her former student.