[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.
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.
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
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.
PS. What do you