How’s this for a movie pitch? A fictional love story set against a real life-historical backdrop, filmed on a substantially large budget, starring an English actress named Kate, centred around a sustained set-piece featuring spectacular special visual effects and a love ballad over the end credits.
How about Oscar-winning direction from a director who knows how to make a film like this work to audience-pleasing and critically acclaimed effect? For that, you’d be better off just watching Titanic again because you’re not getting it here, although if there is anything to be learned from Pearl Harbor, it’s that Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay really wanted to make their own version of Cameron’s blockbuster.
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The combination of producer and director had been one that yielded considerable box office results, if not exactly critical acclaim. It’s easy to forget just how much of a formidable force Bruckheimer was in Hollywood throughout the 80s, 90s and 2000s, not to mention Touchstone Pictures. The subsidiary of Disney doesn’t exist anymore but had been an outlet for the studio to release PG-13 and R-rated films that it didn’t want to do under the family-friendly Disney banner. It would be Bruckheimer himself that would produce Disney’s first PG-13 rated film, Pirates of the Caribbean, and with it an opening of the floodgates that would convince the studio to buy into more PG-13 related properties such as Marvel and Star Wars/Lucasfilm.
After having worked throughout the 80s with producing partner Don Simpson at Paramount Pictures, the mixed reaction afforded to their big-budget motor racing drama Days of Thunder, a reunion between the producers and Top Gun director Tony Scott and star Tom Cruise, saw them depart the studio from which he and Simpson rose through the ranks for the home of Mickey Mouse, where they worked on various productions for Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures.
While their other big 90s production, Bad Boys, was made for Sony, it was that film that brought them into the orbit of music video director Michael Bay, who made his feature-length debut with that film and which led to the three collaborating again on The Rock; an anomaly in Bay’s filmography in that it’s actually really good and which benefitted from a tremendous action movie set-up (Die Hard in Alcatraz), wonderful uncredited script contributions from Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, and British comedy legends Ian Le Frenais and Dick Clements, not to mention the winning chemistry between Nicolas Cage (launching himself into an action movie career) and a brilliant Sean Connery, effectively playing a variation of James Bond in a character that was 007 in all but name.
Simpson died just prior to The Rock’s premiere (the film was dedicated to his memory) and Bruckheimer continued to produce films solo, beginning with 1997’s brilliantly bonkers Con Air, before reuniting with Bay for 1998’s Armageddon. That film was an excessive, increasingly over the top cavalcade of mass destruction that is perhaps, love it or hate it, the dictionary definition of a Michael Bay film.
When Bruckheimer and Bay announced that they were going to make a film based on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that led to the US getting involved in World War II, it was safe to say that a gritty anti-war film along the lines that Steven Spielberg delivered with Saving Private Ryan was not on the cards. The casting of Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale in the leads more or less laid out the glossier leanings that the film was going to aim for, and that’s very much what it delivered.
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Hollywood has always followed trends, and in 2001 there was a feeling in the air that the old-fashioned epic was back in vogue for a while. Along with Cameron’s Titanic, which looked back to the type of historical romantic epic that Hollywood frequently relied on, 2000 had seen the release of another Oscar-winning epic in the shape of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, that updated the type of Roman epic that was a dime a dozen in the 1950s and 1960s.
The attempt at trying to bring back those types of epics was met with mixed fortunes and it was in the middle of it that Pearl Harbor was met with middling box office and mediocre reviews. A $450 million box office take in 2001 was not an unimpressive figure; under any other circumstances it would have been something to celebrate and a mark of considerable commercial achievement, but the fact the film was budgetarily greenlit in the region of $140 million meant that box office take wasn’t exactly a large profit margin.
Just to hammer home how much the film desperately wanted to be the next Titanic, the budget was the largest to be granted by a movie studio at the greenlighting stage, in comparison to Cameron’s film which began filming at $100 million before doubling that over the course of its production. The fact that producer and director made a big deal over the budget at the greenlighting stage pretty much said everything you need to know about the intentions of their ‘epic’.
In the pantheon of Bruckheimer films, it lays out the glossy outlook of the universe that was part and parcel of his productions in grandiose terms, but it also perhaps the most tone-deaf film he would produce. Both he (and Don Simpson) had a knack for knowing how to pick out projects that had the ability to have mass commercial appeal; something that was extending to television at this stage. The year before Pearl Harbor’s release was the premiere of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the iconic crime procedural that would spawn a decade-defining franchise and eventually lead Bruckheimer to produce a plethora of similarly high concept procedurals throughout the decade to high ratings.
However, the approach felt wrong here given the events it was depicting, and would look even more incorrect a few months later when the US would, once again, find itself attacked and taking military action in response. In some ways the film represents gung-ho militarism that is very conservative, and which would run through elements of Bay’s later Transformers films in a manner that felt like the Bruckheimer/Bay lampooning of Team America: World Police only without the jokes (and yes, it’s here I should mention that the latter does feature the greatest put-down of what Bay did with Pearl Harbor). The film even features an eye-rollingly stupid scene depicting Affleck’s character fighting the war in the UK and being told by a British pilot just how much he hopes the US will get involved to sort the whole mess out.
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It gives the film a feeling of approaching something akin to propaganda from a long-ago time, only here in a $140 million production that in actuality feels like Braveheart writer Randall Wallace is adapting a somewhat grandiose Mills and Boon potboiler that has had the film’s rights bought by Disney for Bruckheimer and Bay to turn into a visual effect showcase involving the best explosions you’ve ever seen, played by a cast who are so good looking that really ought to be in the music video or Pepsi commercial. That the US would once again find itself on a war footing brought about by an attack that delivered images into our homes via our news channels that felt like something from a Bay/Bruckheimer movie, showed Pearl Harbor up to be a grandiose slice of distaste after the fact – even though it wasn’t bordering on anything resembling tasteful beforehand.
It’s hard to know if a film like this would get greenlit today. It’s not based on a comic book for starters, and with Disney no longer making films via Touchstone Pictures, and Bruckheimer absent from the big screen bar the odd Pirates of the Caribbean film, the recent 12 Strong from Lionsgate and third Bad Boys film (he is set to co-produce the forthcoming Top Gun sequel), Pearl Harbor both feels like a film that is of its time, weirdly ahead of it in terms of percolating imagery of mass destruction followed by a US retaliation, albeit one based on actual historical events, but also like some old piece of propaganda designed to sell War Bonds in the forties while extolling the virtues of joining the war effort. Albeit one filmed like a music video and with an extended stretch of its duration where explosions are everywhere. Literally. In the end, it’s a none more Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer film.