Lost Action Heroes

Pearl Harbor is a stunningly numbing experience. Few movies have ever unleashed so much firepower in such a concentrated amount of time; the depiction of the Japanese attack on the U.S. armed forces at Pearl Harbor Navy Base seems to go on nearly as long as the actual attack did, and the result, quite literally, is overkill. Michael Bay, who directed from a script by Randall Wallace in which all emotions are italicized, has done a highly impressive job staging the attack, but the impressiveness is essentially technological. The woe and horror of the event is steamrolled by a surplus of special and digitized effects. Bay piles it on – a great roiling mass of explosions and human-interest vignettes – but his achievement lacks the clarity of a true vision of war (which is what all great battle scenes have). We’re watching something closer to a disaster-movie spectacle, like the burning high-rise in The Towering Inferno or, more to the point, that spoilsport iceberg ripping through the luxury liner in Titanic. A Jerry Bruckheimer production, Pearl Harbor wants to be the Titanic of war-and-romance movies.

I doubt it will do Titanic-size business, though. There is nothing in it as iconically mushy as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet making goo-goo eyes at each other as the ship goes down and hypothermia sets in. (In other words, Pearl Harbor won’t get repeat business from teenage girls.) Instead, we have a standard love triangle: Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett play Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker, daredevil flyboys and best friends since childhood in Tennessee, in love with the same nurse, Kate Beckinsale’s Evelyn. Rafe and Evelyn meet cute: During his military physical she jabs his bottom with a hypodermic, and true love soon follows. Enraptured though he may be, Rafe quickly volunteers to fly alongside English pilots during the Battle of Britain and, for a while after being shot down, is presumed dead; his surprise reappearance at Pearl Harbor interrupts a courtship between his best buddy and his grieving girlfriend. Bay tries to inject some ecstasy into that courtship by having Danny fly Evelyn through Hawaii’s sunset skies, but the scene seems perfunctory. The big romantic gesture is, to put it mildly, not yet a part of Bay’s repertoire, and besides, the deepest human connection here is between the two guys.

The recent upsurge in World War II movies may be a post-Cold War thing: In the absence of Russkies we’ve gone back to the safe antiquity of an earlier and more cleanly patriotic era of warfare. Pearl Harbor has the bold squareness of a vintage recruitment poster; its male stars, especially Ben Affleck, have the pop handsomeness that often adorned those posters. And what of the Japanese in this film? Compared with the often nauseatingly racist ways in which they were depicted in Hollywood wartime movies, the Japanese in Pearl Harbor come across as almost human: They stand stiffly and speak gnomically. But there’s still a whiff of Yellow Peril in the way we always seem to be hearing kodo drums thumping on the soundtrack during the Japanese military-planning maneuvers. If one is making a recruitment poster, there really is no way to dramatize the Pearl Harbor massacre without turning the Japanese into Japs, and the filmmakers, for all their pretense at fair play, recognize this. The film ends with the reasoned voice-over of Evelyn summing up the trials of war and how we overcame them, but the real dramatic impetus here is not worldly wisdom but revenge: Bay closes out the action with the retaliatory bombing of Tokyo by Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) and his Raiders. Still, none of this will, I think, have a lasting effect on audiences. Pearl Harbor, for all its agonizing true-life trappings, has the staying power of a grand-scale video game. Manhattan’s sushi bars are in no danger of going dark.

Zhang Yimou, the director of The Road Home, doesn’t repeat himself. Raise the Red Lantern was a highly patterned and ritualistic period piece, while The Story of Qiu Ju and Not One Less were free-form and naturalistic, and Shanghai Triad was impossibly glossy. His new film is yet another stylistic embarkation, but this time his technique is predictable, not so much from his previous movies as from the work of the many sentimentalists who have already plowed this well-tilled turf. After receiving news of the sudden passing of his beloved schoolteacher father, an adult son (Sun Honglei) leaves the city to pay his respects to his aged mother (Zhao Yuelin) in the northern village where he grew up. These present-day sequences are shot in stark, muted grays, while the extended and copious flashbacks recounting his mother’s youthful courtship of his father are rhapsodic with bright reds and yellows. In setting up such a severe tonal contrast, Zhang is perhaps attempting to show us how our cherished memories can be inflamed and poeticized – falsified – by longing. And yet Zhang, who previously revealed such rich ambiguity in his presentations of the past, offers up the flashbacks with a straightforward gushiness.

The young girl, played friskily by Zhang Ziyi (who made this film, her first, before hitting it big with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is a lovelorn cutie who gambols at the sight of the handsome new schoolteacher in town (Zheng Hao). She stands out in the snow waiting for him and bakes him her favorite dishes and nearly goes mad when she loses a hairpin he has given her. It’s like watching a beautifully made, widescreen version of a Chinese soap opera, the kind that often shows up on cable TV. Zhang has frequently been in and out of favor with the Chinese authorities, and it’s possible that the swoony, apolitical The Road Home represents some kind of capitulation. But it may also be that he wants to be a true popular entertainer by reproducing – and outdoing – the soaps. He’s trying for operatic kitsch, not the highest of pinnacles for such a full-bodied artist, and a goal his artistry prevents him from attaining anyway.

Pearl Harbor
Directed by Michael Bay; starring Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, and Kate Beckinsale.
The Road Home
Directed by Zhang Yimou; starring Zhang Ziyi.

Lost Action Heroes