Bayhem and the “day that will live in infamy” were not a great mix.
One of the most distinctive directors of action blockbusters, Michael Bay made the immediate leap from commercials and music videos to box office hits, including Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon, with the latter of the three cementing the style and themes that he would become synonymous for.
Around the time of Bay’s emergence in Hollywood, romance epics took the industry by storm, most notably James Cameron‘s Titanic.
In the same year as Bay’s action odyssey of oil drillers-turned astronauts, Steven Spielberg pushed the limits in exposing the horrors of combat on the battlefield in Saving Private Ryan.
Both Cameron’s and Spielberg’s films were massive commercial and critical successes, with Titanic taking home 11 Oscars, including Best Picture.
Bay, who was lacking in artistic respectability in the eyes of film criticism, directed Pearl Harbor in 2001 as his bid for critical legitimacy, as well as continued box office prosperity. While his attempt to be equally populous and prestigious in depicting a fateful romance amid the cataclysm of war, Bay should have stayed far away from directing this film.
A tale of war and romance mixed in with history. The story follows two lifelong friends and a beautiful nurse who are caught up in the horror of an infamous Sunday morning in 1941.
What Is ‘Pearl Harbor’ About?
Set against the historical backdrop of the attack on the United States Naval Base in 1941, Pearl Harbor follows two lieutenants, Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), and the romance between them and their mutual love interest, Lieutenant Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), a nurse for the Navy.
The parallels to Titanic are evident – a hopeful relationship juxtaposed with impending fatal doom, with the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service standing as the iceberg.
Whereas James Cameron’s film seamlessly balances the two interwoven storylines, Michael Bay’s film ostensibly operates chunkily as two separate films.
The opposing tones of the romance and build-up to the attack do not work in harmony and only serve to pace the story at a sluggish rate. Arriving on December 7th, 1941 takes quite a while on screen – to the point that the film’s lengthy runtime only exists to forcefully claim status as an epic.
The Action in ‘Pearl Harbor’ Is Extravagant, Yet Empty
Action sequences filled with explosions captured via shaky cam is Michael Bay’s comfort zone. Anyone who has seen Armageddon or any of his Transformers films knows that the director has never blown anyone away with complex characterization and human relationships.
Despite the film’s choppy pacing in the first half, there is a sense that Bay is eager to ditch the haphazard love triangle for the destructive warfare that took place on December 7th.
After nearly 90 minutes of build-up, as Bay occasionally intercuts between the Japanese navy’s preparation for the surprise attack, the first fighter jets fly into the base in Honolulu, Hawaii, and “Bayhem,” the colloquial term for the director’s cinematic style, is finally put to work.
The extensive action set piece portraying the air strike is a loud, sprawling, and visceral display of the chaos of warfare. The sequence is detailed in its depiction of a battlefield, featuring hundreds of extras, fighter jets, missiles, sinking ships, and various pockets of the naval base that are gravely impacted by the assault such as the kitchen staff and hospital. Altogether, the scene is a captivating exhibition of Hollywood spectacle, and this is precisely where the problem lies.
The depiction of the “day that will live in infamy,” as coined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is appealing on a primal viewing level, which is quite concerning if what is being shown was the deadliest strike on American soil at the time.
The senseless violence and affinity towards blowing up heavy machinery are fun and forgivable when the circumstance is a farcical buddy-cop or super-robot movie. In the case of Pearl Harbor, the havoc on the islands of Hawaii is too sanitized concerning historical events, and the action feels empty as a result.
The sequence announces itself as a showcase of the carnage of war, but it never proves itself to be that statement. Bay’s lack of emotional maturity and nuance is glaring in this film and most damningly with his direction of the attack.
Soldiers are launched like projectiles whenever an explosion occurs, and any additional collateral damage caused by enemy fire is played as a mindless extravaganza. The film lacks the brutality and torturous viewing experience evoked by Saving Private Ryan.
Bay’s vapid inclination of blowing every object in sight to smithereens cannot rely on the crutch of being “turn your brain off entertainment” considering the subject of a real-life tragedy. In its definitive scene, Pearl Harbor carries the weight of a video game rather than a calamitous loss of innocence and peace on the island and in America entirely.
Why ‘Pearl Harbor’s Romance Doesn’t Work
Even before Michael Bay decides to have fun amidst the backdrop of tragedy, a lack of seriousness presides over the film. Along with his slick, fast-cutting, explosive action direction, Bay is commonly associated with his glamorized and overtly patriotic illustration of the military and armed forces.
This quality is dominant throughout the film, but it particularly resonates in the set-up before the attack. The glossy Dutch angle shots of characters standing with the sky in the background resemble something closer to military recruitment propaganda than film.
The influence of romantic epics amid war, such as the Best Picture-winning From Here to Eternity from 1953, is present here, but the reliance on clichéd character dynamics dampens the attempt to mimic the emotional weight of its predecessors.
Blockbuster action filmmaking and heartfelt melodrama are not mutually exclusive, as this was the thread that Titanic managed to weave, and it became a four-quadrant sensation in theaters as a result.
Affleck’s Rafe, a prodigy of flying who tests the patience of his superior officers, is less of a real person and more of a parody of Maverick from Top Gun.
Beckinsale’s Evelyn is an angelic damsel who solely provides as the guardian of emotional support for both Rafe and Hartnett’s Danny. Bay does not sell the romance with an ounce of naturalism, whether it is in the form of beauty or pathos.
Why Michael Bay’s ‘Pearl Harbor’ Doesn’t Work
Having outlined the flaws of the love story, there was an opportunity for Bay to effectively juxtapose the romanticism of a majestic Americana before entering World War II with the destruction that would ensue on December 7th.
Where this storytelling device fails in execution is in the gratuitous nature of the toothless violence seen in the attack. Ultimately, Bay’s unbridled patriotism blinds him from properly treating the story with sincerity.
Pearl Harbor was disguised as a sophisticated leap for Bay, but behind the curtain, the film succumbs to the director’s juvenile tendencies. There is no sense of the gravity behind the atrocities of war, and the contrived romance rings true of an adolescent discovering feelings for the first time.
A problem is eminent when a film about a grave tragedy is inseparable from the rest of Bay’s filmography. The story of the Pearl Harbor attacks deserved a more mature, understated, and nuanced treatment and not the maximalist theatrics of Bay. “Bayhem,” at the very least, is ironically gratifying, as long as it is utilized in the Transformers franchise or Pain & Gain. As for depicting the day that lived in infamy, Michael Bay should have passed.