Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Touchstone Pictures
Directed by Michael Bay
Screenplay by Randall Wallace
Released by Buena Vista Pictures
A Knight’s Tale
Produced by Columbia Pictures Corporation and Escape Artists
Written and Directed by Brian Helgeland
Released by Columbia and Sony Pictures
Most films have a signature moment, a scene that suggests the whole. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay have signed their feverishly silly Pearl Harbor with two strategically counterpoised images that surface in the aftermath of the Japanese attack. Kate Beckinsale, playing Navy nurse Evelyn Stewart, is taking blood from two young fighter pilots lying side by side in hospital beds. As it happens, the handsome donors, Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), are both her lovers. (Don’t get ideas; she’s not that kind of nurse. I’ll explain later.) The first of the signature shots comes when the camera cuts to the receptacles she’s using to catch her lovers’ blood. Having run low on the customary containers, she’s resourcefully snaked the draining tubes into two Coke bottles. Cute. A few scenes later, the cuteness doubles with the second shot in which we see people sipping cola from red-white-and-blue Pepsi bottles. Regardless of its grim subject, this movie is determined to effervesce with all-American commercial cheer.
But there’s something odd here. The PepsiCola company is on record as having adopted its now-familiar patriotic hues to support America’s war effort. It seems surprising, then, they would already have been in evidence on the day before we declared war on Japan. Were Pepsi’s executives so prescient that they knew hostilities were inevitable and decided to seize their goodwill marketing opportunity betimes? Not likely. Perhaps Franklin Delano Roosevelt had brought them into his confidence, revealing his strategy to provoke the Japanese into an attack. But no, this couldn’t be—not on this film’s grounds, anyway. Its narrative gives absolutely no indication that Roosevelt had any ulterior designs on the Japanese. (While it’s hardly credible that FDR would have welcomed the Pearl Harbor attack, historical research clearly demonstrates he was hoping for some kind of lesser assault in the Pacific, just enough to force Congress to join him in declaring the war he thought America must fight.)
Bay and his scriptwriter, Randall Wallace, go to great lengths to dispel any suspicions concerning Roosevelt. We’re told that the attack’s architect, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Mako), was sending out scores of coded messages all mentioning different possible targets, thus confusing our intelligence gatherers. Further, we learn America’s chief cryptographer hadn’t broken the code entirely and was reduced to guessing at Japan’s intentions. (This is not true. The U.S. military was reading the Japanese code quite easily by 1940.) Roosevelt, as reverently played by Jon Voight, seems shocked and devastated when the attack comes. Regathering his wits, he demands immediate retaliation against Japan. When his advisors tell him this would be impossible given America’s state of military unpreparedness, he unlocks his leg braces, struggles painfully from his wheelchair to his feet, and thunders, “Do not tell me that it can’t be done!” Wow! He would have been perfect for Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign.
This is a Coke-and-Pepsi movie. It’s more interested in feel-good equal-opportunity product placement than wrestling with inconvenient historical facts. This commercial spirit has guided the film’s treatment of the warring nations. Like the competing colas, America and Japan are, beneath their superficial differences, both wholesome homes to their brave and patriotic peoples. Before the bombs fall, young servicemen in Hawaii are gadding about with flotillas of nubile nurses on their arms. In their quieter moments, however, they’re all filled with noble warrior yearning. As one says with wistful disappointment, “We’re as far from the war as we can get.” (Talk about ironic foreshadowing.) Clearly, these boys hanker to do something drastic. Rafe does: He joins the Royal Air Force. On his arrival in England, his British commanding officer wonders if he has a death wish. Affleck juts his jaw and replies evenly, “I’m not anxious to die, just anxious to matter.”
The Hawaiian and European scenes are punctuated by cuts to Japan, where we watch young Zero pilots training enthusiastically for their heroic mission as Yamamoto reluctantly plans the operation. Close-ups of the admiral’s tortured face duly register his regret that he must bomb his roundeyed brothers. But what can he do? “They’ve cut off our oil lines; we have only 18 months left,” he laments. (This is true. In July 1941, America, Britain, and the Netherlands froze Japanese assets, reducing their trade by 75 percent and their oil supply by 90. Still, the film never connects the dots leading back to FDR’s Pacific strategy.) In the background, we see Japanese children flying kites in a sky of incandescent blue. The green, sun-gilded landscape below bespeaks nothing but peace. When an assistant commends Yamamoto for the brilliance of his plan, he somberly replies, “A brilliant man would find a way not to fight a war.” (The Koreans and Chinese might be forgiven their skepticism on this point, having repeatedly and brutally been the objects of Japan’s imperial ambitions.)
As much as possible, Bay and Wallace have studiously smoothed away unpleasantries. We never see the Japanese as anything other than admirably heroic—with good reason. The film’s distributor, Buena Vista International, a division of Disney, intends to circulate it in the Japanese market. Of course, it will be a different version from the one seen here. It has been reported that (among other alterations) the studio will lop off the ending, which dramatizes Jimmy Doolittle’s high-risk bombing raid on Tokyo (undertaken to revenge the Pearl Harbor attack), will be trimmed. After all, Japanese children have only recently been allowed to hear about the war in their classrooms. We mustn’t be insensitive. Before the film opens in Germany, no doubt Bay will prune its unflattering newsreel footage of Hitler and his troops. Hey, why not? Relax. Have a Coke. Have a Pepsi. Or, if you’re German, have Deutschland’s soft-drink alternative: Afri-Cola. Kick back and enjoy the show. The theater of war has rarely been so entertaining.
Projects like this are invulnerable to critical analysis. Pearl Harbor is an extraordinary exercise in achieving market reach, a film designed to please ever’ member of its global audience. An all too familiar corporate smarminess pervades the entire enterprise with its one guiding principle: Offend absolutely no one. Everything shimmers with a soft glow of burnished goodwill, signaled by repeated shots of huge setting and rising suns that invoke both the rustic American innocence of our heroes’ Midwestern upbringing and the triumphal imagery of the Japanese flag. As in war, so in marketing: The first casualty is truth.
For pure cynicism, however, nothing beats the film’s love story. This brings us back to Nurse Evelyn and her two flyboys. At first, she falls for Rafe, who unexpectedly proves himself a gentleman. He pledges his commitment to her on the eve of his departure for England by not going to bed with her. Later, he asks his best friend, Danny, to take care of Evelyn if “something happens to me.” Thus, we’re not in the least surprised when, after blasting the better part of the Luftwaffe out of the air, Rafe is shot down and reported dead. Danny dutifully brings the news to Evelyn. Soon after, as they pledge eternal loyalty to Rafe’s memory, they predictably fall into each other’s arms. Of course, Rafe, indelicately alive, turns up in Hawaii on December 6, just days after Evelyn discovers she’s carrying Danny’s baby. (Could this be a heads-up regarding the inconveniences of premarital sex?) Before the ensuing recriminations and soul-searching get very far, December 7 dawns, and Japanese bombers wing ominously into view, buzzing over a boys’ baseball game and a little girl’s birthday party on their way to you-know-where. (Yes, it’s 7:55 A.M. on a Sunday, but this is a Coke-and-Pepsi film; you’ve got to have something both terribly moving and sweetly picturesque to sell product.) What follows is a truly dazzling 40-minute recreation of the Japanese attack, complete with computer-generated Zeros buzzing above and between U.S. carriers and battleships like angry wasps on speed. I must concede I was impressed. Many will find this sequence makes the rest of the film bearable.
When the explosions end and the ships are sunk and the desperate sailors trapped in the capsized U.S.S. Arizona have drowned, we (unfortunately) must return to the romantic triangle’s denouement. Catching Rafe alone, Evelyn tells him that she had wanted to explain things, but “then all this happened.” “This,” of course, is the attack, during which nearly 2,400 people died and thousands were grievously wounded. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart had sense enough to tell Ingrid Bergman their romantic dilemma didn’t “amount to a hill of beans” compared to the conflagration surrounding them. Here, the hill of beans is left to smolder in the harbor. Trying to ease Rafe’s distress, Evelyn reveals her family condition. “I’ll always love you,” she tearfully assures him, “but I’m going to give my heart to Danny.” Rafe, of course, becomes instantly gracious about it all, going off to make his peace with the father-to-be. A wad of nobility this large challenges the gag reflex unconscionably. And there’s more, much more—another 40 minutes, in fact. With any luck at all, years from now people will be saying, “They don’t make films like Pearl Harbor anymore.”
A Knight’s Tale chucks all claims to historical accuracy, reveling in anachronism instead. Fourteenth-century knights joust to such rock songs as “We Are the Champions” and “Taking Care of Business” while their fans do the Wave in the bleachers. Still, this charmingly unpretentious film displays more genuine historical wit than the enormously self-important Pearl Harbor.
This is a tale of medieval class struggle. Will (ingratiatingly played by Heath Ledger), a lowly roof-thatcher’s son, longs to prove himself in the big-time jousting lists. There’s just one problem: Although he displays the heart of a born champion, he’s not a born aristocrat. Without patents establishing noble birth for four generations on both sides, he’s limited to fighting in backwater villages where not much attention is paid to family quarterings. So he dubs himself Sir Oric of Liechtenstein and hires Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany) of Canterbury Tales fame to be his p.r. flak. (My favorite scene has Chaucer confronting the sleazoid who becomes his model for Pardoner. It’s a mini-thesis on how authors always get the last word.)
Will is soon jousting with the best and winning the heart of the beautiful Maid Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), for whom the traditional epithet “fair” must refer to her disposition, since her complexion seems distinctly African in hue (surely an oddity in 14th-century Britain, however amorously correct in the 21st).
What ensues is as slapdash and slaphappy as an Errol Flynn vehicle crossed with Bing Crosby’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and rounded out with a Rocky-like denouement. All in all, it follows cinema’s patented populist formula for filling theater seats with the cheeky masses.
I’ll admit that, after several jousting montages featuring thundering hooves and shattering lances, I began to lose track of who was who behind the interchangeable helmet visors. On the other hand, my 11-year-old, Liam, had no such difficulty. He eagerly followed Will’s swift advancement through the warrior ranks to a showdown with a sneering aristo who mocks his lower-class origins. Worse, this villain considers women nothing more than tournament prizes, ranking them somewhat lower in importance than gift horses and victory trophies. He does make allowance for Jocelyn’s superior charms, however. As he tells Will, he intends to saddle her and put her on his mantel. Hiss, boo!
While Pearl Harbor strains to appear heroically old fashioned, A Knight’s Tale effortlessly hits the mark by refusing to take itself seriously.