Yesterday, December 7th 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan.
It’s been 75 years since that fateful attack on US soil, and 15 years since Michael Bay made a movie about it, and people are still arguing about which one was worse.
Oof, okay, sorry. No more joking about it. Sean and I are actually in Honolulu right now, visiting the Pearl Harbor site, and that’s a super-somber thing for sure. But beautiful too, in its way. There’s a floating memorial right over top where the USS Arizona lays beneath the ocean. You take a small shuttle boat over to it, and you can walk around on the very spot where it happened. It’s a lovely memorial, sobering as it is built right over the battleship, where 1102 of the 1177 crewmen killed still rest. In aerial shots, you can make out the outline of the ship. Lots of quiet moments to think about this loss of life.
Does Michael Bay’s movie afford the same opportunity? Not so much. The spectacularly bad dialogue makes it hard to take seriously. And critics derided the love story, though lots of Pearl Harbor-era veterans thought it pretty accurate. It’s maybe not the kind of love story we’re used to today, but if you compare it to a romance from the actual 1940s, it’s not so far off the mark. Plus, war and love make us do crazy things. Michael Bay, however, is just the worst choice to convey those things. The 40 minute action sequence: superb. Very Michael Bay. Very explody. It’s even in the Guinness book of records for movie with most explosives used. There’s one shot of 6 explosions in “Battleship Row”, which was staged on real Navy ships. 6 ships, 600 feet each, rigged with 500 bombs on each boat, using 700 sticks of dynamite, 2000 feet of cord and 4000 gallons of gasoline. It took 7 months of coordination, a month and a half to rig them, permission from the government of Hawaii, the EPA, and the Navy, plus 100 extras on hand and 6 planes flying overhead, and 14 cameras to film it and in the end, it was a 7 second explosion that was stretched to 12 seconds on screen. That’s how Michael Bay do.
Otherwise it’s bloated and clichéd and weak in both plot and character. Bay has a special kind of super power where he routinely takes 3 hours to say very little, and almost never authentically. But there’s a lot of flag-waving. Wouldn’t you like to see Michael Bay and Clint Eastwood in a flag-off? Who would drop first? Pearl Harbor manages to make a spectacle out of a profound moment in history, where blood was shed by real people embroiled in their own acts of love, intimacy, bravery, fear, courage, and duty. But those stories never get told. Instead, Michael Bay offended the Japanese by upping the “barbarism” of the whole thing, which also insults American vets, who would be right in thinking the real event was bad enough. A better tribute to those who died, and those who survived, is found at the memorial, where a 23 minute documentary is shown, and manages in those 23 minutes to be more honest and more informative than Bay’s 183.