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.