Pearl Harbor: "disgustingly racist"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed May 23 09:42:43 MDT 2001

Pearl Harbor

Cast: Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, William Lee Scott, Greg
Zola, Ewen Bremmer, Alec Baldwin, Jon Voight and Cuba Gooding Jr.
Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Randall Wallace
Running Time: 170 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year: 2001

Pearl Harbor's opening sequence exhibits Bay's obsession with wheat fields
and boyhood dreams of flying as two little boys, the younger versions of
the film's protagonists, mock-shoot at an airplane while playing inside of
a barn. It's as middling and restful a moment as we are going to find in
the entire production and, even then, it is barely sufferable, skewered
with such a simpleton's command of the cognitive link between childhood
experience and adult actualization. And, if Bay's naïveté weren't enough,
the director has one of the boys beat the other boy's father (in self
defense, of course) while muttering some anti-German diatribe, thus setting
in motion the film's disgustingly racist themes.

As profound as this film could have been in ruminating on the humanistic
underpinnings of war, Bay has successfully managed to reduce the incidents
surrounding the bombing of Pearl Harbor into a mere ping-pong battle
between a moustache-twirling Japan and a virginal America. One series of
shots during the film's climax, which many audiences have already digested
through the film's trailer, finds Japanese airplanes soaring over the heads
of an America oblivious to the horror that is about to transpire. If the
mere ignorance of upcoming danger weren't enough, every unsuspecting
innocent in the film can be found partaking in the most obvious of
rudimentary activities: from playing golf and chess to hanging clothes on a
clothesline and frolicking through a park with angel wings on one's back.

Bay's decision to paint America as a land of country-bumpkins all-too-ready
to defend the motherland from an alien invasion is fine enough. Bay's
execution, though, is to condescend to the Japanese by portraying their
culture as seemingly emasculated (see the scene where Bay foppishly focuses
on the Japanese dress ritual before going to war). The desire to paint the
Japanese as devoid of human emotion shows a saddening refusal on the part
of the production to acknowledge the political and cultural complexities
behind the war that was instigated by the bombing. The Japanese men in the
picture are dressed to the nines in frilly black outfits (the color of
choice for all villains) and, if such signifiers of evil weren't enough,
Hans Zimmer's score swells to menacing proportions whenever the film's
actions shift to Japanese territory.

Despite the relatively high-power presence of Cuba Gooding Jr. in the
film's cast, the actor's role is reduced to that of a virtual man servant,
needing to prove his worthiness amongst a relatively all-white crew by
knocking heads with some oaf during a boxing match. As much as the film
would like to celebrate the fact that Doris "Dorie" Miller (Gooding Jr.)
was one of the first highly decorated black men of the United States army,
Bay does nothing but define Miller as a man whose courage is summoned by
the permission of his white master. Once Miller's captain dies during the
film's high-octane climax, Miller manages to park himself at a shooting
station, screaming maniacally as he shoots at the descending Japanese
bombers. Considering how free Bay is with needlessly explicating the film's
simplest of themes, as with Kate Beckinsale's rumination on why men need to
use their fists to get respect, it's surprising that Miller doesn't just go
the extra mile and scream "Why God" while atop of his empowering tower of
violence. But, then again, Pearl Harbor kitsch factor is unintended and it
is certainly far from harboring a deep understanding for the spirituality,
let alone psychology, of war.

If Pearl Harbor's racist leanings weren't suspect enough, the actual
ham-handed story that makes up the film's backbone is enough to make even
the most lame-brained of writers cringe in terror. At the center of the
film is the story of a nurse (Beckinsale) who is wooed by the freedom
fighting Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck), only to loose him in the war and fall
in love with his best friend Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett). Bay's obnoxious
reliance on pans and overhead shots (usually on display during any scene's
opening shot) wears out its welcome as fast as the film's greeting card
cinematography. Bay waxes poetic on everything from the reading and writing
of the tearful love letter amongst rocky beaches to a variety of soap opera
conceits: the misreported death, the ensuing romantic entanglement and the
unexpected pregnancy.

The actors in the film fare horribly for the most part, with the possible
exception of Hartnett. As much as the film's trailer denoted what could
have been a role defined by pretty-boy posturing, Hartnett manages to
somewhat transcend his Abercrombie & Fitch exterior and inject some
humanity into his role of loyal and grieving friend. The nurses in the film
are played by an assortment of women who fail to convincingly live within
their roles as medical saviors and, in the end, come across as refugees
from a Showtime soft-porn movie. The film's highlight, at least for me, is
the scene where the Japanese planes gun down the nurses. Although there is
nothing particularly pleasant about the scene, one can't help but wonder
why Bay didn't go the extra mile and make his actresses don stiletto heels
for the scene.

Bay, surprisingly, stops short of showing his couples fornicating within
the confines of any of the film's numerous steely environments but he does
go to ludicrous lengths to stage one sex scene inside of a storage facility
inundated with hanging bed sheets. Call me ignorant, but unless the air
force has a purpose for such decorations, it's the film's most confounding
fault in its art direction. But, then again, the film's excesses run pretty
deep, from its meager attempts at humanism (as with the random ramblings of
a Japanese man before taking flight against the Americans) to its
headache-inducing use of sound effects. One scene finds the two male leads
exchanging punches and one can almost see how the sound department pounded
on slabs of meat in order to recreate the bone-crunching sounds of fists
meeting faces.

Michael Bay's America evokes a kind of proud, Norman Rockwellesque
appreciation for a simple way of life. It's a world where boys take girls
up in airplanes, hoping to parlay a glimpse into the mechanical nature of
the male mind in return for some booty. If Michael Bay is begging for
artistic credibility with Pearl Harbor then someone please tell Mr. Bay
that it is time for him to throw in the towel. As narratively defunct as
Armageddon might have been, Bay's newest picture eschews any attempt at
historical accuracy. No youngster will walk away from this film with any
clear idea as to what caused the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With Bay's help,
though, they might get the impression that the Japanese were an inscrutable
bunch of louses waiting to get their prissy asses kicked to the heavens by
a bunch of freedom-fighting good old boys. And even though Pearl Harbor's
effects sequences manage to lift the picture above complete mediocrity, the
film's simple-minded view of violence as a tool of revenge (as explicated
by the laughable roles played by both Alec Baldwin and John Voight) moves
me to brand the film as the most dangerous work of pop art to hit the
screens this year. But, then again, I never liked airplanes when I was
young, so I guess I didn't have flying objects to divert my attentions.

Ed Gonzalez
© slant magazine, 2001

Louis Proyect
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