I have no problem admitting I own every film Michael Bay has directed (I'd say Armageddon is the dumbest movie I'm glad I own), but that doesn't mean I'm willing to defend him as a filmmaker. The guy makes pure, unadulterated junk, but that pure, unadulterated junk usually makes for spectacular DVDs. Face it, you're more likely to become the envy of your friends by using your Criterion edition of The Rock to show off your home theater system than if you use the Criterion edition of Solaris. The new Blu-ray edition of Pearl Harbor continues the trend; the movie itself is embarrassingly awful, but the presentation is pretty damn sweet.
For anyone who doesn't know, Pearl Harbor is the story of Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), two Tennessee boys who become Army pilots in the days shortly before America enters World War II. Rafe falls in love with a nurse named Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), but he is shipped off to England and shot down and reportedly killed during the Battle of Britain. Danny and Evelyn, now stationed in Hawaii, turn to each other for comfort; the two end up becoming lovers, and Evelyn eventually becomes pregnant. Rafe, the details of whose death were greatly exaggerated, shows up in Hawaii on December 6, 1941, shocked, hurt and angry to find his best friend putting it to his best girl. Rafe and Danny get into a fight, sort of reconcile, and fall asleep in Danny's convertible. They awake the next morning to the sounds of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. They hop in a couple of P40 fighters and shoot down several Zeroes. Their heroics attract the attention of Colonel James Doolittle (Alec Baldwin), who is planning his bombing raid into the heart of Tokyo. Rafe and Danny bid farewell to Evelyn. Only one of them will return.
Pearl Harbor is really an amazing achievement. Director Michael Bay, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and writer Randall Wallace took one of the darkest days in American history and fashioned around it a movie that is almost completely devoid of emotion, impact, and resonance. I still can't quite believe they actually managed to pull it off. Nice work, fellas.
Let's start with the script. If Bruckheimer paid him by the cliché, Wallace could very well now be the wealthiest person on the planet. I think this script actually contains more clichés than Wallace's screenplays for We Were Soldiers and The Man in the Iron Mask combined. Here's a sampling: Rafe can't read, but he sure can fly. Danny's dad is a mean old coot. Most of the nurses seem to have signed on just to meet cute boys. The engaged pilot and nurse experience tragedy. Most of the pilots want to get laid before they ship off, but Rafe wants his first time with Evelyn to be special (given what happens, that wasn't such a smart move). And dig that cheesy dialogue. I honestly don't see how the actors managed to keep straight faces while spouting the nonsense Wallace wrote for them. It's as if the only audience he had in mind was undiscriminating twelve-year-old girls who had never seen another movie. It's no big secret that this movie follows the template created by Titanic, but Wallace's dialogue makes James Cameron's stilted claptrap sound like it was crafted by David Mamet and Robert Towne.
As for Bay as director...well, who the hell thought that would be a good idea? Sure, he knows how to blow up stuff real good, but he knows nothing about character, drama or emotion. The actual attack sequence is impressive from a purely technical standpoint (the visual and practical effects are topnotch), but that's all that can be said for it. All of the destruction, death, and mayhem mean absolutely nothing because we don't give a damn about any of the characters or their plights. It's nothing more than a big Hollywood action scene, with all of the extras trying to hit their marks. It doesn't have the visceral impact of the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan, or the mixture of exhilaration and dread provided by the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. And it's too pretty for its own good. Everything piece of machinery looks like it had just rolled off the assembly line and been polished to a pristine gleam. Every stitch of clothing or strand of hair is immaculate. From the clouds of roiling smoke, to the showers of golden sparks, right on down to Affleck's triumphant rise from the wing of his plane after he and Hartnett have returned from their sortie, the entire movie looks like a series of postcards, and it's completely the wrong approach. (Bay and cinematographer John Schwartzman purportedly clashed over the visuals; given that they haven't worked together since, I'd guess that's probably true.)
Despite the filmmakers' repeated assertions that they were paying tribute to those who experienced the attack, they do nothing to honor those who were at Pearl that day. When it's all said and done, the movie treats the events with all the reverence you'd find in a jingoistic video game. This approach might have worked had the movie been released within a year of the actual attack, but now it's rather insulting. Rafe and Danny's flight was inspired by actual events (although I doubt the chicken maneuvers and ground-hugging, raid-on-the-Death Star-like dashes between the anchored destroyers were part of these events), but you won't hear the names of the real-life pilots mentioned anywhere, and the same goes for the men who really flew with Doolittle. But why bother with the true heroes when you can invent a couple of pretty boy supermen who can take on the Japanese pretty much all by themselves? This isn't a tribute; it's more like Bruckheimer making another attempt at a recruitment film. Heck, I'm surprised Rafe and Danny weren't shown sneaking into Hitler's bunker, popping him in the head and making it look like suicide, or perhaps going to Los Alamos and helping out Oppenheimer and his crew. It's not like either would have been too farfetched for this story.
The only part of the movie that comes close to working is the Doolittle raid. Baldwin has one line of dialogue that actually does seem to express what many still feel about these young boys who essentially went off to save the world, and it's a crying shame the rest of the movie doesn't work in the same manner, just as it's a shame that the movie follows up the Doolittle raid with an excruciatingly silly action scene and a bit of groan-inducing bathos. It's all just sad, sad, sad.
One last thing: This disc contains the theatrical cut, not the Director's Cut Bay prepared for the Vista Series DVD. That means no oozing intestines, no bouncing severed head, no limbs flying about wildly, and no racial insensitivity from Tom Sizemore.
The 2.35:1 transfer features excellent colors, details, and black levels, but some minor edge enhancement and a bit of noise (flaws which were also evident on the original DVD) keep it from being truly first-rate. As misguided as Bay visual stylistics may be, I have to admit they look pretty great on this disc.
The sound is absolutely fantastic. The Dolby Digital track (available in English or French) features crystal clear dialogue, immersive, copious use of the surround channels, and deep, booming bass. The uncompressed PCM 5.1 track is even better, with a slightly smoother, more natural sound, but you really can't go wrong with either option. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
The extras here are a direct port of those found on the original DVD.
Journey to the Screen-The Making of Pearl Harbor (47 minutes) features interviews with Bay, Bruckheimer, the principal cast members, and several Pearl Harbor survivors, as well as behind-the-scenes footage, most notably of the central attack sequence. As can be expected, the interview clips with the survivors put the movie to shame.
The History Channel documentary Unsung Heroes (45 minutes) details the actual events of the attack by utilizing interviews, newsreel footage, and a wealth of background detail. Once again, it's far better than anything the movie itself has to offer.
You also get a music video for Faith Hill's "There You'll Be," the sappy, trite, annoying song played over the movie's end credits (that the song was penned by Dianne Warren should come as no surprise). I hate the song, but I would be lying if I said I don't enjoy looking at Faith.
Bringing up the rear are the movie's teaser and theatrical trailers, which somehow actually manage to make the movie look good.
Some cheeses get better with age, but Pearl Harbor isn't one of them. Rent it if you want to give your system a good workout, but that's as far as I suggest you take it.