I've noticed that people in the movie business who want to appear smart--or "edgy," or higher-brow than most--often like to bemoan the stupidity of Michael Bay, director of the sleek, glistening Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon. Oh, how they love to lambaste the now-notorious animal-cracker scene in Armageddon, to laugh at his tearjerking moments, to impersonate Liv Tyler's "acting." Through it all, I just smile, Gioconda-like--because I have a dirty little secret. I love Michael Bay.
Fifty years ago the movies of American grindhouse maverick Sam Fuller weren't culturally respectable, either. They weren't even culturally acknowledged; they were the drive-in equivalent of old magazines on the floor of an outhouse. The problem for Fuller was that he made movies out of disreputable source materials--namely, yellow journalism and pulp novels. (Today, of course, yellow journalism and pulp novels are as cool as the AC in a martini lounge.) Similarly, Michael Bay makes kinetic, ecstatic cinema out of current culturally loathed elements--namely, TV commercials and music videos. Like Fuller, Bay doesn't flaunt these ingredients; they are sincerely the alphabet of his pea-brain. And, like many a pea-brain, Bay has a damnable tic: an intuitive, movement-oriented, viscerally overwhelming genius.
Let me amend that just slightly: Bay did have a viscerally overwhelming genius...right up until the day he signed on to make Pearl Harbor. Remember James Cameron's acceptance speech for his Titanic Oscar, when he asked billions of viewers to observe a moment of silence in honor of the Titanic's victims? Under the guise of piety, Cameron fulfilled his ultimate dream as technocrat and control freak: He made the entire world shut up and pay attention. Watching Pearl Harbor, the most expensive movie in Disney's history, I could imagine what compelled Bay to take on such an exhausting project: the erection he got while listening to that Oscar-night silence.
It now seems a miserable rite of passage for directors who make machine-pressed pop entertainment to heed a higher calling: the bugling of "Taps," the respectful nod in the direction of the Fallen Valiant. Spielberg erected his own boring monument with Saving Private Ryan; Cameron's Titanic turned mass death into middlebrow pseudo-art; and now Bay turns his gaze to the "day that will live in infamy." As if to commemorate the vanity of empty ambition, every shred of his talent has flown out the window.
There are two elements of the crushingly dull Pearl Harbor that contain a hint of the Bay that was. Like the eerie glimpses of David Berkowitz that lit up Spike Lee's grimsville Summer of Sam, Bay's shots of stone-faced Japanese officers plotting their sneak attack give this inert bag of beans a modicum of movie vitality. Dour yet unremittingly practical, the Japanese are the only intelligent and purposeful--and, hence, likable--people in the movie. And then there's Pearl Harbor's crusty, can-do FDR, played with endearingly corny sincerity by Jon Voight. The movie keeps demonstrating the liberal Democrat's un-pinko-ish courage by having him stand himself up with two trembling arms; it seems perfectly characteristic of Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer that they could valorize a left-wing cripple only if he spent his life muscling his way out of a wheelchair.
But it's the central story of Pearl Harbor that feels like Novocain in your forehead. Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) are two country boys-turned-flying aces; in a groan-inducing early scene, their commanding officer (a portly yet diminished Alec Baldwin) hollers, "Do you gentlemen think these expensive aircraft are your own private toys?" (Later, Baldwin says, like a character in Hot Shots! Part Deux, "You boys have it! I mean grit, guts, courage, fortitude, stick-to-itiveness...!") Rafe falls in love with a pretty nurse (Kate Beckinsale), then joins the British Royal Air Force to bomb Germans and is reported missing in action, presumed dead. In short order, Danny and the nurse get friendly, then they get really friendly, and then--on or around December 6, 1941(!)--the missing ace comes home to discover that his best friend is sweet on his girl.
In the heat of middlebrow respectability, Bay's flower wilts. There's no texture, no subtext, no trace of humanity in Bay's movies--just the music-video technique that crushes heads like beer cans. Bay can't even muster the period detail that Spielberg and Cameron brought to their whoppers: All the non-action scenes in Pearl Harbor look as though they were shot on the back lot. There's no cliché too dull or overexposed for Randall Wallace's screenplay--from the gaggle of green recruit nurses to the comic-relief stutterer who gets the prettiest girl. And there's only one moment of truly pleasurable unintended comedy. Tom Sizemore, as a cigar-chomping pilot, screams, "What in the holy hell is all that racket?" Hartnett's Danny, all gee-whiz astonishment, replies, "I think World War II just started!"
In mammoth enterprises like Titanic and Moulin Rouge, the elephantine artifice of the movies can be, if not forgiven, at least temporarily overcome by the charisma of the performers. But here, it's as if Bay tried to make Lawrence of Arabia with the fresh faces of the WB. Beckinsale is a wonderful actress and a stunning, glint-eyed beauty, but she belongs amid the barbed repartee of Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco, not running around looking concerned and "feminine." Affleck usually comes across as a funny and not unlikable fellow, but he simply doesn't have the heft to hold one's interest in a movie of this scale and length; and, as his opposite number, the pretty, glowering Hartnett is embarrassingly lightweight, a teen-movie ingénue trying to make like Robert Mitchum. When Bay cuts to a bunch of hog-jowled intelligence experts arguing in a marble room, you want to stay there--anything to keep away from his movie-of-the-week romance.
A great movie has been made on this subject: Otto Preminger's 1965 masterpiece In Harm's Way. Built around a similar juxtaposition of the intimate and epic, Preminger's film is full of graceful tracking shots through officers' balls and shades-drawn bungalows; a ripe Patricia Neal manages to make even John Wayne seem sexy. Where In Harm's Way is airport-novel kitsch raised to the level of art, Pearl Harbor is the same dumb concatenation of low gags and Kodak moments that make up the rest of the Bruckheimer-Bay canon, but with the veneer of civic duty, the pretense of higher purpose that makes it deadly. As Bay allows his frenetic-salesman style to become neutered, one comes to a ghastly realization: This guy really thinks he's an artist.