To this day, “Bayologists” (the term for the nonexistent scientists I just made up who study the works of Michael Bay) still aren’t entirely sure when the exact point the Baron of Bayhem started being a ludicrous parody of himself, but it they were to ask my opinion, it was the very second the world casted their eager eyeballs upon his unintentionally hilarious World War II epic, Pearl Harbor.
Up to that point, Bay had two silly, but legitimately kickass movies under his belt in Bad Boys and The Rock and the impressively un-selfaware sci-fi disaster flick Armageddon and this blatant attempt to try a clone the real life tragedy + romance + ground breaking visual effects = boffo box office was supposed to mark the director’s assent to the heights of modern filmmakers.
Of course history decided to see things in a rather different light and when presented within the constraints of a serious war movie that came in the wake of Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, Bay’s usual tics and habit were revealed for the mindlessly bombastic clap trap it always was.
Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker are two childhood buddies who both grow up to want to become fighter pilots, but as World War II rages in the background, the uber-confident Rafe wants to fight and gets himself transferred from his station to join the RAF. However, making matters tough is the fact that he’s fallen head over heels in love with Evelyn Johnson, the pretty young nurse who passed him for his medical exam and in the four weeks since, the feeling has been more than reciprocated. Of course, much like a million cheesy war movies before it, Rafe goes off to fight with the Guinness sipping Brit pilots and writes numerous letters despite the movie already hoing out of his way to set up that he has dyslexia but choosing not to show how he’s conquered it. Anyway, Rafe is shot down and declared dead leaving the shy Danny to break the news to Evelyn at their new posting at the Hawaiian naval base of Pearl Harbor; but, wouldn’t you know it, Danny ends up falling in love with Evelyn too and soon, months after Rafe’s death, the two hook up, deeply in love.
However, it turns out that news of Rafe’s death has been greatly exaggerated and instead he managed to survive his crash and sneaked out of Nazi occupied France only to find that his best buddy and his girlfriend have been making the beast with two backs in a parachute storage hut.
Rafe, to put it mildly, is incensed, but everyone is going to have to put their emotions on hold as this is the day when the Japanese unleash its devastating raid on Pearl Harbor, tearing up the area with vicious machine gun fire and bombs that couldn’t give a solitary fuck about the trials and tribulations of one single, messy love triangle.
Up until this point, Michael Bay’s adoration for the military, sunsets, weirdly off-colour jokes and explosions you can see from the moon had all played in his favour when he played in the sandbox of awesomely unsubtle action movies – however, his apparent lack of interest in establishing anything remotely resembling a real character and his insistence of whiping his camera around the set ended up biting him hard on the butt when he had to dovetail all of these vices into the very true story of one of the most notorious actions of the war.
Establishing that his characters live in a war time America that seemingly existed solely on propaganda posters, we’re introduced to our core cast that are not only a selection of every overused war trope that’s ever existed but who are forced to regularly utter pure garbage like “It’s been the most romantic four weeks and two days of my life”, “You just make sure you come back for the both of us, all right?” and, most nauseatingly “I don’t think I’ll look at another sunset without thinking of you.” without a shred of irony. I’ll give you a moment to compose yourself while you projectile vomit.
The effect is disastrous as it renders its three leads as likable and relatable as a cluster of mannequins and its supporting cast as a group of interchangeable faces who you can only tell apart because you’ve seen them in something else. It’s a crying shame too, because one place where Pearl Harbor manages to excell is with its humongous cast that contains such names as Jennifer Garner, Jaime King, Tom Sizemore, Cuba Gooding Jr, Alec Baldwin, Ewen Bremner (his character’s stutter naturally being played for laughs), Colm Feore, Dan Ackroyd, Michael Shannon and Jon Voight who is kitted out with rubbery jowls in order to play the wheelchair bound President Roosevelt. However, all their lines sound less like dialogue and more like statements that would make for a great needle drop for the trailer. Sitting atop this mountain of squandered talent is the trio of Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale and Josh Hartnett who have to struggle with making this insipid romance work for an entire hour before the explosions start and it’s quite the achievement that three such appealing actors are reduced to a romance so cringeworthy it makes the legendary awful “‘animal cracker” scene from Armageddon look like the bit on the beach From Here To Eternity. Affleck in particular comes off pretty badly with Bay presumably smashing the dial on his smug-o-meter which leads to some stunningly flat acting – check out his reaction to seeing the love of his life making out with his best friend looks more like he’s lost control of a shart or realised he’s forgotten to pay a red notice electricity bill rather than being emotionally gutshot.
However, one area that Bay doesn’t lack in is when it comes time for Japanese to start pounding the titular harbor with everything they’ve got and it’s here where he finally, unsurprisingly, starts to shine. Bluntly put, its probably still the finest action sequence he’s ever filmed, a sustained string of fireballs, bullets and destruction that not only is genuinely exhilarating but includes probably the best shot the typically hyperbolic director has ever conceived as the camera breathlessly tracks a bomb from the plane, all the way down to the deck of a ship. Industrial Light And Magic outdo themselves with swarms of photo real digital bombers buzzing past kids playing baseball while they fill up the sky like migrating birds and the moment when an entire exploding battleship bucks right out of the water like a freaked out mule can match up with anything seen in Bay’s Transformers franchise. To put it in less classy terms, Bay shoots his action wad so hard it’s more a case of pearl necklace, than Pearl Harbor…
However, despite the repeated flawless flybys and tense moments, your attention is drawn by the places the film should have gone. Why isn’t Cuba Gooding Jr’s petty officer given more screen time when his story is vastly more interesting that our lead’s? Why is the audience almost peer pressured into cheering the shooting down of a couple of Japanese planes compared to the utter carnage wrought on the Americans? And most of all, in a effort to cram some patriotic payback into the film, why does the film go on another hour after the raid to focus on the the subsequent Doolittle Raid when it should be solely focused on wrapping up this sodding romance.
Crass, loud and frequently laughable, Bay’s epic example of biting off more than he can chew give a new, unwanted meaning to the phrase “war is hell”.