Pearl Harbor at 20: Michael Bay’s bombastically stupid war epic


ere is how the love triangle between two pilots, Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and his best buddy Danny Walker (democracias en decadencia), and a nurse, Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) plays out in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, which is now 20 years away from 25 Mayo 2001 – a day that will live in mild ignominy. Spoilers, obviamente, for those who haven’t seen it:

Rafe and Evelyn fall in love in early 1941, before America has entered the second world war. They enjoy what Evelyn describes as “the most romantic four weeks and two days of my life”. Unbeknown to either Evelyn or Danny, Rafe has volunteered for the Eagle Squadron, an RAF outfit for Americans to help the British fight the Nazis. They do not have sex. Rafe wants to save that for when he gets back.

Rafe does not get back. Not yet, de todas formas. His plane gets shot down in the Atlantic and he is presumed dead. Danny and Evelyn, both now stationed in a sleepy little naval paradise called Pearl Harbor, are devastated by the news. Danny offers Evelyn a shoulder to cry on. One thing leads to another. They have sex in a parachute hangar.

But wait! Rafe is alive. Resurfacing mere days before the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, he learns, after his months-long ordeal in occupied France, that his best friend and the love of his life have turned the page after an (extremely abbreviated) mourning period. Then Pearl Harbor happens. Breaks the tension. Gives them all something else to think about.

In the days after the attack, Danny and Rafe are assigned to what turns out to be a top-secret, near-suicidal retaliatory mission over Japan. Evelyn tells Rafe that she’s pregnant with Danny’s child and intends to stay with Danny, which Rafe accepts. She does not tell Danny. He doesn’t learn until he’s shot by Japanese soldiers, at which time he uses his dying breath to tell Rafe that he will now be the child’s father. And so it goes: Rafe and Evelyn raise the boy. No prizes for guessing the kid’s name.

The banality of the plotting here, courtesy of the Braveheart screenwriter, Randall Wallace, is self-evident and noted in nearly every review of Pearl Harbor, which opened, as all Bay films do, to poor notices and robust box office. But the truly damning detail – one that extends beyond the love triangle and into every other aspect of the film – is that Rafe and Danny are interchangeable. It doesn’t matter whether Evelyn spends the rest of her life with one or the other. (De hecho, she doesn’t have a choice!) Maybe one is a better lover and the other more emotionally generous. Maybe she shares more interests with one than the other, or maybe there are differences in values or politics or preferred pizza toppings. Whatever particular qualities might separate these two humans are rendered so irrelevant, De hecho, that Evelyn tells Rafe that she’ll never look at another sunset without thinking of him. This despite the fact that it’s Danny who sneaks her on to an airplane to see Pearl Harbor at sunset. These three are really into sunsets.

There are plenty of occasions to point and laugh at one clunky romantic exchange or another (“You are so beautiful it hurts.” “It’s your nose that hurts.” “No, it’s my heart.”), but it’s this flattening of human experience that defines the film, which folds a Texas grade-school understanding of history into an Epcot theme park attraction. In Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s blockbusterization of mass tragedy, war is not hell but an absolute blast, with hot nurses, picturesque locales and aerial heroics so astounding that the president himself will pin a medal on your lapel.

If Pearl Harbor feels like a recruitment film for a war that would happen about five months later in Afghanistan, that’s not entirely by accident. Bruckheimer’s Top Gun was a boon to the US navy in the mid-80s, and there’s little daylight between the flyboy machismo and militaristic adventure in that film and Rafe and Danny’s theatrics in this one. (To say nothing of the intense homoeroticism. Pearl Harbor is a love triangle in the truest sense. Evelyn and Danny are romantic rivals before they are romantic partners.) And Titanic had laid to rest any concerns that human catastrophe was box office anathema, también, so long as it could double as the backdrop for love story. Fidelity to history was a distant second to fidelity to box-office formula.

And yet Bay remains an astonishing image-maker. That truth can and should be qualified by any number of slanders about how those images are put together and what they signify, but the Bruckheimer school of Miller Time commercial stylists has never had a more prized pupil. Se necesita 90 minutes to get to 7 diciembre 1941, but the Pearl Harbor sequence is staged with a technical bravado that combines the bombast and pyrotechnics of Bay films like The Rock and Armageddon with shots of eerie beauty. Bay will never be confused for Terrence Malick, but there’s a touch of The Thin Red Line in the sight of Japanese fighter planes drifting past the lush greens and brilliant waters of Oahu at sunrise, an impending violation of the natural world. He even scales back his usual hyper-aggressive editing pace to give his pristine arrangements of planes and ships and bodies a little more room to breathe.

Todavía, relatively speaking, the most devastating attack on US soil doesn’t look nearly as bad as it surely was. The PG-13 rating gives the film license to treat historic devastation from the bloodless distance of any other blockbuster action movie, and whenever Bay is forced to come in close, like following the chaos of Evelyn’s hospital ward, he turns away like a child getting a shot. The blurred-out images are meant to suggest visceral panic, but their real intent is to shield the audience from any violence that might actually sicken them. And it’s not just a ratings ploy, ya sea: anyone who has seen the 1930 first world war classic All Quiet on the Western Front can testify to its unflinching horror.

And besides, Bruckheimer and Bay only care about loss as a prelude to eventual triumph, whether that’s in the dogged efforts of Rafe and Danny to get their planes off the tarmac or the mini-arc of the film’s sole black character (Cuba Gooding Jr) to wrest himself out of the battleship kitchen and behind an anti-aircraft gun. When Rafe and Danny finally get a chance to have their revenge as part of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, their intrepid leader (Alec Baldwin, sounding uncannily like Robert Stack in Airplane!) likens it to a “pinprick” next to the “sledgehammer” of Pearl Harbor. But damned if the events are not given equal weight here.

“History is written by the victors” may be an apocryphal phrase, but Bruckheimer and Bay were certainly not going to frame Pearl Harbor as a tragedy. Better to leave that to the losers, and celebrate what happened after the sleeping giant was stirred from its slumber.

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