Director Michael Bay made his name directing commercials and in a sense never really stopped, even as The Rock, Bad Boys, and Armageddon made him one of America's best-known directors. Bay's work may no longer directly shill tennis shoes or beer, but he and producer Jerry Bruckheimer continue to blur the lines separating entertainment, advertising, and propaganda with feature-length commercials for an idealized notion of American goodness and their special brand of cinematic overkill. Bay's skill as a propagandist culminates in Pearl Harbor, a pricey three-hour film set in a whitewashed version of 1941 America that looks like a Disneyland attraction designed by Norman Rockwell. Ben Affleck leads a large, universally wasted cast, playing not just a hero but heroism personified—a wholesome, noble-but-arrogant pilot who is not about to let dyslexia get in the way of giving his all for the land he loves. Shot down and presumed dead while fighting for the British, Affleck returns to Hawaii to learn that his beautiful, unsuspecting girlfriend (Kate Beckinsale) has taken up with his heroic best friend (Josh Hartnett) after receiving news of Affleck's supposed death. But, just as Bay's film threatens to turn into a military version of As The World Turns, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, pushing the trio to new heights of nobility as they attempt to save their curiously white-bread paradise from interchangeable, unsmiling warmongers. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is easily the movie's highlight, partly because of Bay's skill at directing large-scale action sequences, but mainly because it provides a brief respite from Randall Wallace's laughable dialogue and nighttime-soap-ready plotting. Like previous Bay/Bruckheimer productions, Pearl Harbor bounds from contrived climax to contrived climax, never letting audiences forget that they're watching a pop-cultural event, and a legendarily expensive one at that. In Bay's world, every shot is the money shot, and people don't talk so much as make bold pronouncements, windy speeches, and sweeping declarations. The language of Wallace's script is the universal tongue of the unapologetic cliché, and Bay films the proceedings without a shred of self-consciousness or moral ambiguity. Leave it to Bay and Bruckheimer to reduce one of America's biggest military tragedies into a three-hour avalanche of Kodak moments, and one of America's defining crises into a facile exercise in fake uplift.
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