In Pearl Harbor, Michael Bay successfully reduces the incidents surrounding the bombing of Pearl Harbor to a ping-pong battle between a moustache-twirling Japan and a virginal America. The film’s major montage sequence features Japanese airplanes flying over a preposterous American pastoral on their way to Hawaii. Among the many happy sights they encounter: a woman putting up her laundry, children playing baseball and a little girl inexplicably wearing a princess outfit while walking through a park with her mother. This is the Bay’s dangerous and calculated way of evoking our American innocence. During the film’s opening sequence, two young boys (the younger versions of Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett) mock-shoot at an airplane while playing inside a barn. This otherwise ordinary moment in the lives of two young children becomes Bay’s gooey and insufferable way of negotiating the link between childhood experience and adult actualization. Not only does their joy for planes prefigure their future in the navy but their anti-German diatribes (one boy beats other boys father in self-defense) prefigures the film’s racist underpinnings.
Bay’s interpretation of America as a land of country-bumpkins all-too-ready to defend the motherland from an alien invasion is offensive but certainly not as criminal as his emasculating portrait of the film’s Japanese characters. During one scene, Bay focuses on a Japanese fighter’s dress ritual before the man heads off to war. He observes the man with a girlish glee that welcomes laughter from the audience. Not only is the film’s Japanese contingency dressed to the nines in frilly black outfits (remember: bad guys wear black, good guys wear white) but Hans Zimmer’s score has a way of menacingly swelling whenever the film’s action shifts to Japan. Cuba Gooding Jr. allows himself to be reduced to the role of manservant aboard his doomed ship. Bay’s idea of negotiating racial tension is having Doris “Dorie” Miller (Gooding Jr.) butt heads with the all-white crew during a boxing match. Though Bay extols the character’s courage, Doris only summons that strength with the permission of his white master (here, the ship’s captain but Bay works just as well).
The film’s ham-fisted story revolves around a nurse (Kate Beckinsale) who’s wooed by two horny lotharios: freedom-fighting Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and his best friend Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett). The film’s love affairs predicated on all sorts of misunderstandings (misreported deaths, an unexpected pregnancy). In the film’s funniest scene, Beckinsale gets to read a love letter by a rocky shore. As she crumples the letter, her voice-over follows suit. The poor actresses in the film don’t make for convincing nurses and come across as refugees from a Showtime soft-porn movie when forced to run away from Japanese planes. For added dramatic effect, the girls keep on their stiletto heels. What with the soap opera material and greeting-card cinematography, Pearl Harbor comes to resemble an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog come to life but with none of the subtext. Bay paints with overripe crayons, gives his actors only the most overwrought dialogue and pummels the spectator with loud noises. If this is America then Norman Rockwell is turning in his grave.
Minus a few less-than-solid blacks, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is so incredibly gorgeous that many of the film’s shakier special effects sequences are less easy to spot. The skin tones, especially, are accurate and very warm. There’s little difference between the English 5.1 Dolby Digital audio soundtrack and the optional DTS 5.1. In fact, musical fidelity sounds fuller and more pristine on the former. Also available is a Dolby Headphone track that allows you to experience Pearl Harbor’s intense surround sound from your headphone speakers.
Included on the first disc are no less than three commentary tracks featuring eleven individuals. The first features Bay and film historian/Wesleyan Film Professor Jeanine Basinger. You may ask what a film historian, let alone a film professor, is doing anywhere near Pearl Harbor so it’s no surprise when Basinger’s "as you may remember from school" comment to Bay sets off a few warning bells (the director graduated from Wesleyan). Bay began to record his commentary "250 hours after 9/11" so he spends some time discussing the film’s relevance in light of the events of 9/11. A second commentary track features producer Jerry Bruckheimer and actors Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin and Josh Hartnett. Though Bruckheimer isn’t particularly insightful (he tells us that it was a very long shoot and the film was very expensive to make), Affleck and Hartnett manage to take a few swipes at the film, pointing out the strange Japanese scenarios and the cartoonish interpretation of American innocence. If you’re wondering why Bruckheimer doesn’t silence his two actors, his track was recorded separately. The third commentary features cinematographer John Schwartzman (he mentions how they had to grow corn for the film), production designer Nigel Phelps, costume designer Michael Kaplan, art director Martin Lang and composer Hans Zimmer, who claims that he wanted Bay to make a film better than The Battle of Britain. It wouldn’t have been very hard yet Bay was unsuccessful nonetheless.
Disc two begins with the music video for Faith Hill’s Oscar-nominated song for the film, the terrible Dianne Warren anthem "There You’ll Be." That’s followed by a National Geographic "Beyond the Movie" TV Spot and a making-of documentary that, while serviceable, proves less so upon careful inspection of the more worthwhile features found on the third and fourth discs. Most interesting is footage of Pearl Harbor veterans on the set of the film, Affleck and Hartnett at boot camp and shots of the film’s costumes (Michael Kaplan discusses how women today are much bigger now than they were in the 40s) and period planes. Disc three separates its supplemental material into two categories: film and history. The former features an extensive production diary, creative advisor Mark Palansky’s Super-8 Navy newsreel footage, the film’s theatrical teaser and trailer, and additional footage of Affleck, Hartnett and Baldwin at boot camp. The latter features two History Channel documentaries on Pearl Harbor ("One Hour Over Tokyo" and the more insightful "Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor") and the unfortunately titled "Oral History: The Recollections of a Pearl Harbor Nurse." Though the menu screen claims that this reenactment of Lieutenant’s Ruth Erickson’s testament runs three minutes and 36 seconds, it actually runs for five minutes and forty seconds.
The fourth disc begins with a multi-angle, multi-audio interactive presentation of the film’s Pearl Harbor attack sequence, allowing you to watch, for example, any given visual rendition of the scene (the actual finished product, storyboards/animatics, composite of angles) with either the isolated audio, sound effects, the score or on-the-set sound. The most informative feature on this DVD edition is an incredibly fun and engaging interactive timeline that uses documentary footage to focus on the many historical elements from around the world that contributed in some way to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Also included are six impeccable photo galleries featuring some particularly graphic Stan Winston special effects shots. The DVD-ROM includes a link to the film’s official site and links to Pearl Harbor web resources.
The film may not deserve this much attention, but the work that went into this special DVD edition (from the classy interactive menu design to the sophistication of the disc’s many features) is evident and it certainly pays off.