In the latest installment of Hollywood’s unofficial “Greatest Generation” chronicles, Pearl Harbor offers up an entertaining, yet annoyingly nationalistic and nostalgic look at the battle of Pearl Harbor. As a cinematic experience, I cannot denounce the movie. It is corny, yet quite watchable. However, as a nationalistic love fest, I have to enthusiastically condemn the film as flag-waving nonsense. It is hard to think of any other way to describe a movie that says in its trailers: “It was the end of innocence and the dawn of a nation’s greatest glory.” Greatest glory? I should have let that tip me off right there.
Now, I can appreciate that this movie was brought to us by the same people who produced Armageddon, and that it does not take itself seriously like the excruciating Tora! Tora! Tora! In the end, though, it is a movie that makes the Second World War look glorious, virtuous, and very sexy. It is little more than a tale of three stunningly attractive young people in a love triangle who are stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese show up to bomb. The movie is filled with excellent special effects showing the bombing and destruction of the Pacific fleet followed by glamorous shots of John Voight as Franklin Roosevelt before the whole movie is topped off by America’s city-bombing of Tokyo in 1942.
The director clearly is not terribly concerned with historical accuracy, and he doesn’t pretend to be. He simply wants to tell a story in an entertaining and cinematic way. The problem arises when we consider the asinine and unrealistic images of war and politics that the movie presents. President Roosevelt is treated as such a saint in the film that even Newsweek magazine commented on the excessive hero worship. Critic David Ansen commented that the audience should expect to see a halo appear over FDR’s head any moment. The flag waving, the Saint Franklin worship, and the “paybacks are a bitch” attitude all add up to a pretty irritating film to anyone who can appreciate to the excesses and tragedy of war.
This film is really quite out of place in a time when some very good war films like The Thin Red Line and Enemy at the Gates are focusing on the individual experience in the tragic play of war. Of course, this does not play well with many audiences. Critic Lisa Schwartzbaum criticized Enemy at the Gates for being too hard on Stalinist Commies and not hard enough on Nazis while giving the audience no one to root for. Apparently, the fact that the movie was trying to point out the futility of fighting for an abstract ideology and how individual families cope with war apparently did not win many audience members over. The Thin Red Line was way over a lot of people’s heads, and I can’t say I blame a lot of people for being a little taken aback at the movie’s bizarre scenes.
People who are going to a movie to root for the good guys will naturally like Pearl Harbor a whole lot more than Enemy or Thin Red Line. Pearl Harbor’s morally unambiguous story line should be troubling, though, in a time when tensions in East Asia are unnecessarily high and the Chinese are in danger of ending up in the same part of the American psyche as Imperial Japan has been for a long time. Many older people already know better, but if young moviegoers are convinced that the war with Japan was as the trailer says, “America’s greatest glory” why should they fear a conflict with China? Those who actually experienced the war with Japan certainly know better, but they are unlikely to watch the movie.
I suppose that I may be overreacting to the movie, and that people will appreciate the manufactured Hollywood nature of the film. Nevertheless, we do live in a society that relies heavily on popular culture for its formulation of public ideology and historical knowledge. Not only does this movie reenforce the totally unfounded and unquestioned veneration of FDR, but it also glamorizes a bloody and destructive conflict in the minds of the movie-going public. Surely, that is something we can live without.
May 22, 2001