Pearl Harbor: Vista Series
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Starring Ben Affleck, Josh Harnett, Kate Beckinsale,
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Review by Damon Houx
With a $140 million production budget, 2001's Pearl Harbor will enter the history books not as one of the greatest films of all time, or one of the most successful (which seems to be what the film was striving after) but instead as the most expensive film ever green-lit, at least until something bigger comes along. But unlike a lot of piggy-bank-breaking efforts it wasn't costly because it went over schedule. No, in fact it was all done on time and budget under the guidance of Buena Vista (a.k.a. Disney) and producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay. And though it was rammed down the throats of American public with an aggressive marketing campaign, it was not perceived as a home-run film, but instead something of a hard-sell although it did manage more than $75 million from its Labor Day weekend debut.
But in the end, Pearl Harbor's final stateside gross was $188 million, which if you factor in the advertising budget and the theaters' cut of the profits left the film relying on ancillary markets and foreign box-office to get into the black, which it did (as is mentioned in an audio commentary track on this title, the film was big in Japan). But for a picture targeting itself as that year's Titanic or Saving Private Ryan, it missed its mark.
Yet the business of cinema has changed so much that ancillary sales have become almost as important (if not more so) than theatrical ones. DVD has become such a driving force that the format (much as it did for Fight Club) has made Pearl Harbor profitable, with the film grossing over $144 million with its 2001 DVD sales alone (the initial DVD set was released on December 7, 2001, the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor). Since then, the movie has kept selling, so it should be no surprise that a "Vista Series" has come out for the title (as was announced when the original disc hit the streets), released on July 2nd, 2002 to commemorate Independence Day. (If the film comes out for a fourth time, expect it on Flag Day). Of note, there have been special edition DVDs of every Michael Bay film previous to this (with two under the Criterion banner). Unfortunately, the story of the Pearl Harbor's box office is much more interesting than the film itself.
Danny (Josh Harnett) and Rafe (Ben Affleck) are two lifelong friends who become combat aviators for the U.S. Army. As war clouds loom over Europe, Rafe gets an offer to go to England and fly against the Nazis, but before he leaves, he falls in love with a pretty young nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale). And while Rafe undertakes dangerous missions, both Danny and Evelyn are sent to Hawaii, stationed in a tropical paradise with nothing going on. In the meantime, Admiral Kimmel (Colm Feore) oversees a bored Pacific fleet, as everyone in D.C. including president Franklin Roosevelt (Jon Voight) waits to see if Japan will attack. And as everyone waits, Rafe is shot down in Europe and presumed dead.
Three months later, Danny and Evelyn find themselves attracted to each other, but after they make love, Rafe turns up in Hawaii and finds that he has become the proverbial third wheel. He is stung by the betrayal, but then the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and America enters World War II. Surviving the assault, Danny and Rafe are asked by their commanding officer Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) to join a daring, almost-suicidal bombing raid on Japan.
So that's it?
Yes Pearl Harbor is a potboiler romantic drama with a historical backdrop like Cameron's Titanic, but unfortunately not done by artists, but by bean-counters more interested in appearing important and meaningful than actually being so. There really is too much awfulness in this movie, so let's just take the ten worst things about the film.
Ten Things to Hate about Pearl Harbor:
- Michael Bay shoots everything like a TV commercial. Sure, it's a complaint lodged against him before, but it's true; even moments of supposed gravitas are squeaky clean and gorgeous, which takes the focus away from what's happening. The fancy looking clothes and attitude make it seems also more like a high school play, and because of this sheen it suffers from...
- No sense of class-consciousness. The film is trying to be a history lesson, but everything is so gorgeous and make-believe that the characters seem to have no concept of money (which also enhances the film's feel of a Starship Troopers played without irony).
- The love story is insipid. Though the love story is a focal point of the film, because the filmmakers either have the mentality of (or are so targeting the audience of) fourteen-year-old boys, the "emotional" sections of the film are weak. It could be argued that Pearl Harbor is a woman's picture if only because it might not be so bad to choose between Ben Affleck and Josh Harnett, but some pornos have more believable love stories.
- Alec Baldwin. Though he can be a fine actor, he's in honey-roasted-ham mode here. And maybe Alec realized he was in a bad movie and did it to make fun of the picture but that doesn't help the audience any.
- Everything the filmmakers learned about WWII they got from watching movies. Whatever attention to history is paid is marginal, but Pearl Harbor seems more born out of clichés learned from Saving Private Ryan, Tora! Tora! Tora!, and Star Wars than anything else. Which wouldn't be a problem if the film wasn't trying to tell a story that is so firmly entrenched in American history and the entire 20th century.
- The directorial tone. Michael Bay's films until this point have been exercises in the action genre, where a sort of borderline camp flamboyance is acceptable, and almost required. Here, we're not laughing with, we're laughing at, because everything is so over the top.
- Hans Zimmer's score. I liked your score from The Thin Red Line, too, but don't go turning into James Horner on us, okay?
- Bad juggling. Pearl Harbor tries to be all things (romance, war film, period drama) to all people, but the movie is in such a rush to cover all its bases that important sequences like the faux mourning process that Danny and Evelyn go through over Rafe and characters are too shallow.
- The attack on Pearl Harbor is placed in the middle of the film. There is almost an hour of story after the attack, but because the attack is in the middle of picture (and the showpiece of the event), everything after is less so. But, even if this was meant to be the most entertaining section of the film...
- Turning Dec. 7, 1941 into a piece of Hollywood entertainment is sort of offensive. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should, and the main raison d'étre of Pearl Harbor is to show the Japanese sneak-attack a real event that resulted in the deaths of real people. But it's transformed into a gigantic action set-piece that is supposed to be exciting to watch, not in a harried confused way, but entertainingly so. Though it's been said before, this is just as callow as turning the events of September 11, 2001 into an action film. But since it was 60 years ago, who cares? Right?
There are many historical inaccuracies as well, but that said, I am not a student of history and cannot critique the film for its history lessons. So I drafted my colleague Chris Houser, an NYU graduate and history major, to find holes in this department. Here are his thoughts:
"Apart from its inane dramaturgy, Pearl Harbor takes too many liberties with history as its basic premise is indicative of the work of people who have no grasp of even the causal elements of modern history.
"Foremost is Bruckheimer/Bay's conviction that this event is when 'America lost its innocence.' Excuse me? The military strike that occurred on December 7, 1941 was the culmination of a twenty-year power struggle between Japan and the United States, as each country strove for dominance in the Far East and the vast economic resources of China. Ten years earlier, in 1931, when Japan had begun its full-scale invasion of mainland China, President Hoover and his cabinet stated that economic sanctions would force Japan on a road to war, it being a country with virtually no natural resources and an increasingly oil-dependent industrial economy.* China and oil no one's ever fought over them before, right? When President Roosevelt froze all Japanese-held funds in the United States in July of 1941 and suspended all trade with Japan, he was fully aware of the consequences. In fact, a wealth of evidence supports a fully cognizant Roosevelt deliberately leading the United States into a military confrontation with Japan.
"The attack on Pearl Harbor was in all likelihood not what Roosevelt had envisioned, but nevertheless Bay's treatment of Roosevelt as caught in disbelief is a slap in the face of all historic evidence. Going to college cost me about 1/5000th of the budget of this film, but 1/50th of this education could have set the record straight: Roosevelt skillfully manipulated geopolitical rivalries and global trade to position American interests in diametric opposition to its competitor; Roosevelt's main opposition to entering the war came from isolationist Americans at home, and hence he needed an event like Pearl Harbor to galvanize the country into war (one only has to see an equally banal film, Attack of the Clones, to understand this point). Roosevelt just pushed the inevitable into happening given his initiatives. There are (what may be coined) "level one" conspiracy theories that take into account the decryption of Japanese communications and the fact that miraculously all of America's aircraft carriers were out to sea on December 7th though this is quite speculative. But, without acknowledging the inevitability of this episode, Pearl Harbor becomes not only a serious historical distortion but thoughtless propaganda. And for what? To make action scenes more exciting?"
(* Tuchman, Barbara, Stilwell and the American Experience In China 1911-1945. New York, Macmillan, 1970.)
The purpose of it all
Though George Lucas patterned it with the success of The Phantom Menace, few films have become successful after being met by the public with almost total indifference or contempt. For all the blockbusters that were savaged by the critical community (be it Twister or Armageddon), these films were A) aimed at the 15-24-year-old market, and B) delivered what was promised. Pearl Harbor was trying to be all things to all people: a PG-13 love story set during World War II that's as much a history lesson as an exciting action ride. And despite excessive PR, it was modestly received (though our own Alexandra DuPont gave it a positive spin over at Ain't it Cool News, and the film does have its fans). Critics trashed it, with the nicest comments acknowledging that the special effects were stellar.
Pearl Harbor was a success not of its cinematic greatness, but of an aggressive marketing campaign that ensured people had to see it, even if they had no interest in the material or even if they thought it would be bad. It is bad. And now there's a super special edition DVD.
The DVD Set
The Vista release of this film offers the most interesting case I've seen for a DVD yet, even if the film is a wash. The package has a slipcase holding a bulky fold-out section, which starts with a sleeve holding a telegram dated December 7, 1941, announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor. Right next to that is a fold-out section of four cardboard slipcases containing all four discs, which has a cover with a sticker attached to cover the tab. Next to that is a fold-out section containing a booklet listing all the supplements and their running times (often incorrectly). Then are four period postcards featuring images of Ben Affleck, Josh Harnett, Kate Beckinsale, and Cuba Gooding Jr. that are held down by a cord, and finally a paper fold-out showing stills. Though the disc cases themselves can be tiresome, Disney went all out on the packaging, and it does look cool.
More extras than a stick can be shook at
There is quite literally a couple of days worth of extras here. To start with, the film is presented on two platters, both of which offer Dolby Digital and DTS audio (along with a French 5.1 track), and are accompanied by a headphone-specific 2.0 mix. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is reference quality, and the film is now an R-rated cut that adds slightly more gore (yet only adding about 30 seconds of running time to the original PG-13 version).
On these first two discs are three feature-length audio commentaries. The first is with Michael Bay and film scholar/Bay's old college teacher Jeanine Basinger. They both seem to think this film is great, but slightly acknowledge that some people didn't take to it. On track two is producer Jerry Bruckheimer (who was recorded separately), and actors Ben Affleck, Josh Harnett (who were recorded together), and Alec Baldwin (recorded separately). This will probably be the track most people will want to listen to all the way as both Affleck and Harnett refuse to take the proceedings too seriously. On the third track it's the technicians (who were recorded separately) with cinematographer John Schwartzman, costume designer Michael Kaplan, and production designer Nigel Phelps.
Since these discs contain the movies, they are supplement-light: Disc One contains the supplement Why Letterbox as an Easter egg hidden in the sound option sections, which shows what happens when anamorphic films are cropped for television. Disc Two includes the feature Journey to the Screen: The Making of Pearl Harbor. This is the more standardized (though 46 minutes long) making-of/behind-the-scenes stuff that is slightly better (but way more pretentious) than an electronic press kit. Also on Disc Two are the Faith Hill music video for the Oscar-nominated song "There You'll Be," and a one-minute promo for the tie-in National Geographic special. So far we're at thirteen hours of entertainment, and there's still two discs left.
Discs Three and Four: All Supplements
If Pearl Harbor the movie represents a sort of foolhardy American excess, then the DVD release fully replicates that by including more supplements than necessary (though it must be admitted, nothing seem overly EPK superfluous). To start with, Disc Three is broken into two sections: one for the film and the second for the history. The history section contains two History Channel documentaries: The first is called One Hour Over Tokyo, which focuses on the Doolittle raid, and the second is Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor, which focuses on the lesser-known heroics that occurred on December 7, 1941. Both are purported to run 50 minutes exactly but run closer to 45. Also included in this History section is Oral History: The Recollections of a Pearl Harbor Nurse, which runs five minutes and is accompanied by period stills.
The film section on this disc consists mostly of the Production Diary, which is broken into ten sections that run about six to ten minutes a piece, with many featuring commentary (mostly by Michael Bay). Airfield Attack showcases how they did this sequence in the film, while Baja Gimbal shows the construction of the world's largest gimbal to recreate the sinking of the USS Arizona. Battleship Row shows how modern battleships were used to help create the attack, while Dorrie Miller focuses on Cuba Gooding Jr. Mechanic's Row shows the filmmakers working on the airplane hangar section of the attack, while Dud Bomb shows one of the more interesting sections of that attack. Sandbag Stunt shows how stunts were combined with the CGI work, while Nurse Strafing shows them filming nurses being mowed down by airplanes. Doolittle Raid shows the crew working on a battleship for the Doolittle launch section of the film, and finally Arizona Dive shows the filmmakers diving down to look at the (still) sunken USS Arizona.
And that is just the Production Diary section of the disc. There is also Boot Camp, which shows fifteen minutes for the Soldier's Boot Camp section where actors like Josh Harnett and Ewen Bremner went through the rigors of basic training, while in Officer's Boot Camp we see the training that Alec Baldwin went through. Also in this section is a Super-8 montage that runs five minutes and shows the 8mm footage used for the documentary filmmaker in the film, and for newsreel footage. Also here is the theatrical teaser trailer and the trailer.
Disc Four starts with a thirty minute demonstration called Interactive Attack Sequence that offers four different angle features for the Pearl Harbor attack: 1) The Movie, 2) On the Set, 3) Storyboards and Animatics, and 4) all three at once. Also with this are six audio tracks: 1) the 5.1 soundtrack mix, 2) the production sound, 3) a music-only track, 4) a sound effects track, 5) commentary by special-effects supervisor Eric Brevig, and 6) commentary by storyboard artist Robbie Consig. It's as an impressive deconstruction as it sounds.
Next up is Deconstructing Destruction with Michael Bay and Eric Brevig, which has the two of them sitting in a room looking at some of the "money shots" and examining what went into making them. This can be interrupted "White Rabbit" style when a red star appears that leads to clips of Brevig and other ILM veterans like Ben Snow and Ed Hirsch talking about their work. Also here is a straight Animatic Attack section which shows the CGI-rendered animatics used to sketch out the attack footage. A large still gallery for the film is included as well, with six sections: Production Design, Publicity, Historical, Storyboards, ILM, and Stan Winston Special Effects Makeup. It rounds out the movie related extras on Disc Four.
Finally, there is an interactive historical timeline, which is just a documentary broken up into smaller, bite-sized 3-5 minute pieces covering the history of Japanese-American relations that led up to the attack. And on both Discs Three and Four there is a supplement index for the other disc.
Damon Houx (with special thanks to Chris Houser)
- Anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1)
- Four single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL)
- Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French), DTS 5.1, Dolby Headphone 2.0 Surround (English)
- English, French and Spanish subtitles
- Audio Commentary by Michael Bay and Jeanine Bassinger
- Audio Commentary by Ben Affleck, Josh Harnett, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Alec Baldwin
- Audio Commentary by John Schwartzman, Michael Kaplan and Nigel Phelps
- Featurette: Why Letterbox?
- Featurette: "Journey to the screen the Making of Pearl Harbor
- Featurette: Boot Camp
- Featurette: Super 8mm footage
- Featurette: Production Diary - ten episodes
- Featurette: Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor
- Featurette: Oral History: The Oral History of a Pearl Harbor Nurse
- Featurette: One Hour over Tokyo
- Featurette: Interactive Attack Sequence
- Featurette: Deconstructing Destruction
- Featurette: Animatic Attack
- Theatrical Teaser and Trailer
- Music Video: Faith Hill, "There You'll Go"
- Still Gallery
- Interactive Time Line
- Folding paperboard case with slip-cover
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