The more deft cinema becomes these days at creating spectacle through computer graphics and the like, the more preoccupied it seems to get with archival film at its most hazy and incomplete. Maybe JFK‘s three-hour-long infatuation with the Zapruder film kicked off this trend but it reached its pinnacle (or nadir, depending on what you think of it) with Saving Private Ryan‘s twenty-minute restaging of the D-Day landings. This sequence’s unfocused, dizzying cinematography presumably jars the viewer into experiencing some of the dislocation of combat but does so by evoking the prize-winning photographs Robert Capa took on Omaha beach. The distinctive fuzziness of these images has long since become associated with the experience of D-Day but had more to do with an error in the film’s development than with any aesthetic decision on Capa’s part. Even, maybe particularly, when cinema lays claim to some heightened sense of realism, it is likely to have taken another image as its referent.
This is particularly true of the latest spate of movies about World War II, a phenomenon that is probably due to a confluence of factors. The unparalleled horrors of the war would seem to mandate that movies about them be particularly visceral and immediate; at the same time, the passing of the generation that fought the war brings with it a myth that narrative accounts of the war are, or will soon be, largely unavailable; and, finally, in the place of these narratives, a large archive of war footage is available for Hollywood to remold into feature films. Much of this archive—such as the Capa photographs, or the brief 16mm film of the listing, burning USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor—is powerful and iconic largely because of its incompleteness.
You’re almost certain to have seen the footage of the Arizona—wholly engulfed in flame, the battleship slowly keels onto its side, so consumed in smoke that only its twin masts are visible. For all its attempts at sweeping and epic scope, Pearl Harbor‘s main energies seem directed toward recreating this scrap of footage from all conceivable angles and perspectives. Where the single shot of the Arizona doesn’t provide the information director Michael Bay needs—what the deck of the Arizona looked like during the sinking, for example; in the original film, the deck is covered in smoke—Bay simply borrows ideas from other films, most notably Titanic, to fill in the gaps.
Pearl Harbor‘s preference for image over narrative in constructing its account of the attack probably explains its hackneyed script and posterboard characters. Its central conflict—a love triangle involving Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett), two gifted young military pilots who love the same woman, Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale)—is far too flimsy to support the overlong movie. Still, for the first half of the film we are treated to Rafe and Danny’s entire lives. This begins with their budding childhood friendship as they play war on Rafe’s farm. They glue wooden sticks and draw extra controls on the family crop-dusting plane to better simulate the experience of combat flying, but while doing so young Rafe accidentally starts the plane and sends it taxiing down the field.
The scene establishes Rafe and Danny’s God-given piloting skills as the movie lurches forward to the early 1940s via a scrap of newsreel describing the Nazi advance across Europe. Danny and Rafe are now aspiring Army pilots itching for America to enter the war so they can realize their childhood dream of combat flying. Rafe is so anxious to fight that he joins the Eagle Squadron, a cadre of British pilots helping defend London from Luftwaffe bombers, but before he’s shipped out to the English countryside, he meets and falls in love with Evelyn, a Navy nurse.
Theirs is the brief but passionate affair so characteristic of Hollywood at its schmaltziest, and when Rafe is shot down over the English Channel and presumed dead, Evelyn waits a few months before hooking up with Danny. Of course, Rafe subsequently turns up alive after being plucked out of the water and hiding for several months in occupied France, whereupon he and Danny must fight over the same woman, and Evelyn, for her part, must decide which of the two she’d rather be with.
Having established this central conflict, such as it is, the movie proceeds to pin down its audience under a withering crossfire of propaganda. “Don’t tell me about duty,” Rafe tells Danny as they debate Rafe’s decision to join the Eagle Squadron, “I wear the same uniform you do.” Later, a stern, patriotic Colonel Doolittle (Alec Baldwin), in a patriotic reverie, tells a nodding aide that “victory belongs to those who believe in it the most, and believe in it the longest.” The newsreels that transition the movie from one time period to the next berate the U.S. for its isolationism, then extol America’s industrial machine after the nation’s entry into the war. Danny, Rafe, Evelyn, and their fellow freedom-warriors appear on screen to the invariable accompaniment of triumphal music while the treacherous Japanese conspire to destroy democracy over the leitmotif of a minor-key, ominous dirge. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, an Army chaplain administers last rites to a dying soldier, assuring him that “pain is temporary, but glory is eternal.”
Anyone at all familiar with the general trajectory of recent war movies—from Saving Private Ryan to U-571 and Rules of Engagement—won’t be surprised at Pearl Harbor‘s hoo-rah, uncritical celebration of American righteousness, although Pearl Harbor probably takes the award for sheer quantity. The movie’s endorsement of military ideals and barely submerged nostalgia for the war’s anti-Japanese racism only abates for a half hour of stunningly rendered shoot-em-up as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and its surrounding airfields takes place. Although even here, as the movie becomes entranced with its own spectacle, it still reminds us who the good guys and the bad guys are, in case we’ve forgotten: “How do you like it when someone’s shooting back at you?” Danny shouts as he sights a Japanese Zero from his fighter plane. The Hollywood lexicon has a puzzling view of the Japanese at war; they are alternately cowardly, such as during the Pearl Harbor attack, or fanatical and other-than-human, such as during the kamikaze attacks on the advancing Pacific fleet later in the war.
This protracted thrill-ride action sequence, which one suspects is the sole reason for the movie’s existence, is where Pearl Harbor‘s debts to the USS Arizona footage and Titanic become most obvious. The few grainy, black-and-white frames of the archival footage are endlessly embellished and restated as the Arizona burns and lazily rolls into the ocean. These embellishments alternate with a shameless imitation of Titanic‘s scenes of helpless passengers and crew falling to their deaths along the side of a ship deck that has suddenly become a sheer cliff. This visual derivativeness casts the bankruptcy of Hollywood’s remembrance of World War II into clear relief: each time the war’s pictures are represented in a different order they are further diluted with unrelated images (such as those from Titanic); in the meantime, the stories of those who actually served move that much further into obscurity.