Pearl Harbor

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The US conquest of Hawaii and other Pacific territories was never an act of innocence, whereas the film's preferred imagery concerns innocent and well-meaning Americans drawn abroad by foreign evildoers.

Directed by Michael Bay

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Monday, May 28 2001, 11:51 AM

Call it the military-entertainment complex.

The opening of the summer's Big Film was a joint production of the US Navy and the Disney Corporation. This film was vault-launched off the decks of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, which steamed over from San Diego and moored in Pearl Harbor to host a $5 million extravaganza party covered by droves of media.

There is little surprise in learning that there exists an aircraft carrier named after John Stennis, a former Mississippi senator who built his career on defending white supremacy, racial segregation and hyper-inflated Pentagon appropriations. A war machine named after Stennis has a certain ironic appropriateness. What does surprise is the ease with which the Disney Corporation can arrange for the Navy to sail over the horizon, a capacity that it used to be only Saddam Hussein could exercise by making nyah-nyah at the Great Satan.

The taxpayers could get much more value for money here. If they want to re-create Guadalcanal on film, maybe Disney's publicity operation could foot the refitting bill for the Mighty Mo? We could redo the whole of World War II -- at a profit this time. Considering how much of that war has already been re-fought in Cinevision, maybe Hollywood already has turned this account into black? Surely there are at least several taxpaying publics that deserve a percentage of profits for intellectual authorship of the war?

Hollywood has long been the clean-up hitter for the American military. When a half-million GIs in Vietnam couldn't do the job, then John Rambo could. If only Rambo could have been invented before the war, a lot of blood would have been saved. In terms of ideology, Rambo's effectiveness arguably was deeper and had longer-lasting results.

So what is the ideological work of the film version of Pearl Harbor? The opening night presence of the USS John C. Stennisis a first clue. This is not an innocent exercise in the retelling of traumatic history, as if innocence were possible. Where Pearl-Harbor-the-film tells a story of innocence lost, Hawaii-the-place was a center-point of US imperialism in the Pacific. Civilizing notions and the US military walked hand-in-hand into Hawaii, but that absent history provides the invisible organization behind the film's story.

Herman Melville described the imperial scene a century previous to this event, writing of watching a white missionary's wife in starched clothes being pulled to Sunday services by an old man and a young boy dressed in ragged duds. "Not until I visited Honolulu was I aware of the fact that the small remnant of the natives had been civilised into draught horses and evangelised into beasts of burden. But so it is. They have been literally broken into the traces, and are harnessed to the vehicles by their spiritual instructors like so many dumb brutes." With segregated white-native facilities, including whites-only parks and playgrounds, the spirit of white supremacy that Senator John Stennis represented was very much in control of the Hawaiian scene.

The US conquest of Hawaii and other Pacific territories was never an act of innocence, whereas the film's preferred imagery concerns innocent and well-meaning Americans drawn abroad by foreign evildoers. In reality, Americans went abroad of their own accord and clashed with other Pacific empires: the British, Spanish and Japanese. If Hawaii provides most of the film's setting, this is the Hawaii that is a military outpost of empire, a tropical fortress surrounded by Japanese-looking Injuns in dive-bombers. As an inhabited locale, Hawaii provides little more than lovely beach settings where lovelorn women write to their distant soldier-lovers and Japanese agents in Honolulu watch ships through binoculars. Pearl Harboris a romantic paen to a historical crisis in America's Pacific empire, one where another empire rose to challenge for primacy.

The film repeatedly employs images of innocence, but this is an innocence that could be maintained only through willful ignorance and oversight of the consequences of colonialism throughout the Pacific. In Hawaii, in this history that accepts the finality of US dominance, Americans were at peace. Then two boy scouts camping on a hillside watch waves of Japanese bombers fly overhead. The same sight interrupts an innocent Sunday morning baseball game and a young wife hanging laundry out to dry. The problem with such imagery is that it denies preceding realities of conflict and conquest, together with their repetitions.

Neither scouting nor sandlot baseball appeared on Hawaii without the 1887 'Bayonet Constitution' imposed by American businessmen or the 1893 overthrow of Queen Lili'uokalani's constitutional sovereignty. President Grover Cleveland called the annexationist coup "not merely wrong, but a disgrace" and the US Congress finally apologized for the overthrow on its centenary in 1993. Invasion and conquest are poor predicates for claims of innocence.

While nothing can mitigate Japan's criminal militarism, genocidal war crimes, and alliance with fascism, this does not excuse a film history that dislocates the events of Pearl Harbor from an awareness of US imperialism in the Pacific islands. When confronted with anti-colonial native resistance, the European powers meted out military retaliation on numerous occasions. As Melville wrote, "On arriving at their destination, they burn, slaughter, and destroy, according to the tenor of written instructions, and sailing away from the scene of destruction, call upon all Christendom to applaud their courage and their justice." Pearl Harbor lodges a belated complaint that Asians too, like Americans and Europeans, indulged in the same imperial violence.

Appropriately, the story opens in the continental United States. Pearl Harbor's lengthy introduction traces how two young boys, Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett), from rural Tennessee become Army pilots before the war. As warriors-in-training, they are stand-ins for a generation that was about to go to war, and their bonding gives them a tactical advantage over the enemy that emerges more than once. It also creates the difficulty that after Rafe has been reported dead while fighting as a volunteer flier for the RAF, Danny begins an affair with Rafe's lover, Navy nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), when they are stationed in Hawaii together.

When Rafe returns from the dead, however, complications ensue such as might be expected. However, both Rafe and Danny set aside this masculine misunderstanding to fulfill their warrior roles batting down attacking Zeros over the skies of Pearl Harbor -- while wearing Hawaiian shirts, no less. Their friendship since childhood proves stronger than their competing desires for the same woman. Evelyn's ultra-femininity, lushly acted by Kate Beckinsale, serves both as the warrior's reward and a shared source of ultra-masculine bonding.

An admiral, watching Rafe and Danny walking together on the flight deck of the Hornet prior to the Doolittle raid against Tokyo, observes with admiration that such men have always emerged from the American nation at its darkest hours of crisis. These patriotic cliches ooze through the film.

Following Danny's death in a Chinese field after both have participated in the Doolittle raid, Evelyn and her once-and-now-again love Rafe return to Tennessee to raise the child who Danny never lived to see. In the final scene Rafe takes Danny's son, for whom he is now father, into the skies in an old biplane. A circle of masculinity has been completed, the new airman has both physical and spiritual fathers, and the reproduction of warriors goes on.

There's a great war to accompany this turkey of a love triangle. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay pulled out all the stops on the battle scenes and got the budget they needed for Industrial Light and Magic's special effects. Video game aesthetics have clearly affected the film's aerial dogfight scenes, which are skillful postmodern compositions -- including the view of a fighter running through a canyon-flying sequence between firing battleships. When a camera shot follows a Japanese bomb down onto the USS Arizona's foredeck, the video transmissions of smart bombs headed for an Iraqi military headquarters are redefining World War II action films. It's the stunning battle scenes that are driving the box office receipts, not the drippy romance.

While the directorial choreography of violence unquestionably sets a new screen standard, that same realism disappears when the results of violence appear. The camera goes alternately blurry and shaky in the hospital sequences, as if acknowledging that the unbearable moments of suffering and pain cannot be represented. Cinematic realism at such moments would, of course, turn this into an unwatchable horror film. As one Pearl Harbor veteran, Oscar Tully, commented in an interview, the scenes of men burning to death in oil fires were much worse than in the film: "It's fine they left it out of the movie. I don't ever need to see that again." When it comes to the reality of men screaming while burning alive, Pearl Harbor flinches.

Issues of race run through the film as it endeavors to explain how democracy is being defended when blacks cannot serve shipboard as more than cooks in a segregated Navy. Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays real-life Dorie Miller, a black cook who became a decorated hero when he took to the guns aboard a dying USS Arizona. The moment Gooding raises his fist in angry triumph after shooting down a Japanese fighter, the story becomes one of the Americanization of minorities through the agency of state violence. No longer will a black cook have to fight in the boxing ring for respect: the battlefield is about to become an equal opportunity employer.

Director Michael Bay says that the film tries to treat the Japanese "with reverence" and avoid the ethnic demonization of earlier Pacific war films. It largely succeeds in this policy, not surprising considering Disney's sensitivity as a multinational that must consider the variety of its audiences. Disney's Tokyo offices reportedly approved the script with very few comments. However, according to Variety, the marketing campaigns in Japan and Germany are emphasizing the love story over the battle, and the line "a few less dirty Japs" will be replaced with "a few less Japs."

With Wen Ho Lee, false espionage charges, and national-security allegiance anxieties about Asian-Americans, the film's portrayals raised concern in the Japanese-American Citizens League. In particular, they were troubled by one scene where a Japanese-American dentist in Honolulu answers questions on the US fleet in response to an international phone call. The incident appears as part of an espionage ring, but in real life the FBI investigated and cleared the dentist. That sort of historical inaccuracy hasn't troubled the hatemongers who have bombarded the League's offices with threatening e-mail and phone calls since the film opened. The San Francisco police force is patrolling heavily around theaters screening the film.

When the film ends and the theater empties, what ideological work has been done?

At a time when the Pentagon is asking for -- and the Bush administration is advocating -- larger military appropriations than ever before, part of the ideological work of Pearl Harbor is to carry forward a message that heroic soldiering needs heroic machines. The early and primitive radar installation that did not function sufficiently well to identify the Japanese attackers off the coast has its contemporary successors. Military intelligence that could not locate the Japanese fleet today needs satellites and photo-imagery analysis capacities sufficient to check every backyard in the world. The code machines that could not break the Japanese military code well enough have their present-day analogue in a National Security Administration that needs ever-more advanced supercomputers to keep up with the electronic threat horizon.

In short, readiness is the message. Would-be military budget cutters are those anti-patriots who would have the country witness the sight of flaming battleships and screaming sailors all over again. When the USS John C. Stennis steamed from San Diego to Hawaii to host the premier showing of Pearl Harbor, it was not as a simple gesture of memory to comrades who died, but rather military exhibitionism as a counter-argument to any hint or appearance of unreadiness.

Such a military manifestation says that America's armed forces will never again be caught sleeping on a lazy Sunday morning, that it will operate ceaselessly and globally with the finest available military technologies, and that the state participates in ensuring that taxpayers absorb the ideological inevitability of these costs. The entire idea of Pearl Harbor is to walk out of the film feeling proud to be American, or if part of the global audience, to be damn respectful of Americans. Under the terms of such persuasion, to oppose the formulaic inevitability of superpower violence and dominance is to be taken as unpatriotic.

Violence is an occasion for bitter grief and mourning, whereas Pearl Harbor markets that violence through false civic piety. Disney's carefully-scheduled Memorial Day holiday release openly capitalizes on 'honoring the dead' in order to profit from those terrible deaths. In supplying representation as postmodern munitions, the Disney Corporation has become a new-style war profiteer.

Finally, on a personal note, I am no known relation to the Joe Lockard who was the radar operator that spotted the Japanese fighter-bombers and whose warning was ignored. But I've known about him since my childhood. Every year for weeks before Pearl Harbor Day my father, whose name I share, would get calls from journalists around the country who wanted to interview him. Dad normally politely referred them to the Joseph Lockard who was the technological Cassandra of that famous day. But Dad did not like to be interrupted at dinnertime and once, when such a call came during dinner, he gave an interview. "I told 'em they were coming, but nobody listened!" he began dramatically as, realizing what was happening, we tried to stifle our giggles. "I told 'em again and again! Those officers were to blame, not me! I told 'em! I saw 'em coming a long way off!" For one unwitting newspaper reporter, a false history was born at that moment.

Pearl Harbor's history, as ever, remains an open claim. Pearl Harbor the film does not settle that claim.

To view a promotional clip or qualify for a bag of free popcorn, visit the Pearl Harbor website 

Copyright © 2001 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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