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Friday, December 10, 2021

December 10, 2021: Pearl Harbor Histories: The Film

[December 7th marks National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, so this week I’ll remember and AmericanStudy some histories related to the 1941 attack. Leading up to a special post on how we remember such infamous days.]

On the uses and abuses of history in Michael Bay’s most serious blockbuster.

First, let’s stop for a moment and acknowledge the basic impressiveness of the fact that the director of Bad Boys (and sequels), Transformers (and sequels), The Rock, Armageddon, and the like made a historical epic summer blockbuster film about the Pearl Harbor bombing and its World War II aftermaths. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) came out in July (three years prior to Bay’s film) and so I suppose would qualify as a summer blockbuster, but it was still Spielberg, and the post-Schindler and Amistad Spielberg at that—nothing surprising about a historical epic from that guy. But from the man who at the time was rumored to be in production with both Transformers 4 and Bad Boys 3? Again, worth noting and, at a baseline level, admiring.

Moreover, it’d be pretty silly to critique Bay’s film for making a friendship and a love triangle central to its plotlines. After all, that’s the nature of the genre I’ve elsewhere dubbed period fiction—works of art that set universal human stories against a backdrop of (often) impressively realized historical moments. While those of us who care deeply about the histories themselves might be frustrated that such works relegate them to the background, it would be just as possible to argue the opposite: that works of period fiction help modern audiences connect to their historical subjects through engaging and accessible human characters, stories, and themes. After all, none other than the godfather of historical fiction, Sir Walter Scott, could be said to have done precisely that in the creation of characters like Waverly and Ivanhoe. Yes, I just compared Michael Bay to Sir Walter Scott, and I stand by it.

On the other hand, I would argue that if a piece of period fiction is set in wartime, it owes its audience at the very least an equally compelling and affecting portrayal of war: Saving Private Ryan, whatever its flaws, certainly offers that, especially in the opening sequence linked above; Gone with the Wind, more flawed still, is nonetheless at its best in depicting the Civil War and particularly the destruction of Atlanta. Thanks to its sizeable budget and state-of-the-art special effects, Pearl Harbor is able to include an extended depiction of that bombing, among many other battle sequences—yet to my mind (and you can judge for yourself at that link) it fails utterly at capturing any of the brutalities or terrors, or any other aspects, of war. The problem isn’t that the director of Transformers is making a wartime historical epic—it’s that the wartime historical epic doesn’t feel noticeably different from any other action film in his oeuvre.

Special post this weekend,


PS. What do you think?

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