Digital Zero 

Pearl Harbor Reviewed Sight Unseen

[Editor's note: At press time, there had been no pre-screenings of Pearl Harbor, which is generally considered a bad sign in the crit racket. However, given the film's ubiquitous trailer, and a passing knowledge of the works of director Michael Bay, it seemed that it wouldn't be too hard to review the film without having seen it. Watch next week's Film Shorts for a follow-up.]

Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor--and that's really what it should be called (like Fellini's Roma or the George Foreman Grill, the vision expressed could only belong to one man)--is everything the preview led you to believe: overlong, overlit, overwrought, and overpaid. It's nationalism porn, delivering all the basest flag-waving heroism with none of the meat and mettle of actual history or conflict. And, as with real porn, your blood surges in the heat of the moment--with digital bombing raids over phallic turrets standing in for cum shots--and then, the second it's over, you feel dirty for having let yourself watch. Like the sleaze merchant he is, Bay--director of feature-length BMW ads like The Rock, Bad Boys, and Armageddon--is out to seduce at every turn.

The plot revolves around the love that Ben Affleck (a reluctant rube of a war hero) feels for Kate Beckinsale (a protofeminist hottie with Rosie the Riveter tenacity, who melts nonetheless into a helpless, dewy heap whenever Affleck draws near). The young lovers must fight the war on two fronts, embodying all that was pure and noble about the bygone America that only existed in jingoistic propaganda, while blowing up as many Japs as possible.

But these performers are just human things, background to the real stars of Pearl Harbor: computer-generated things. Digital airplanes dominate the film: perfectly spaced Japanese Zeros flying low through the sylvan mountain passes of Hawaii, dogfighting over the mid-Atlantic, looming with Riefenstahlian symmetry (and subtlety) on the horizon. The whole affair swells with a shallow portentousness, which is then kneecapped by epileptic editing and unforgivable dialogue. This would be okay if Pearl Harbor worked as a dumb war movie, but no dice. Even in his depth, Bay is out of his depth; he isn't content to make a comic book--he has to shoot for a graphic novel.

The magic of CG allows Bay to put the camera wherever he wants to reveal his version of the events of December 7, 1941. It's telling that the film's key image--the one we know from the trailer and wait through half the picture for--portrays not how it felt to be a soldier during the attack, but a bomb, plummeting from the heavens toward the scurrying targets below.

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