pearl harbor drops a bomb on the greatest generation

Even with today’s anything-goes-for-a-buck marketing mentality, this is a touchy subject; you can bet Disney’s marketing execs were nearly shitting themselves trying to figure out a way to cash in on Pearl Harbor the movie, as well as Pearl Harbor the historic event, without incurring the considerable wrath of every veteran’s organization in the country…”


by marc covert


So there I was, sitting in a dark movie theater, steeling myself for the much-hated, Pepsi-sponsored trailer with the little moppet in the old Western saloon (“Dontcha even think about smokin’!!!), when I was treated to the sight of a bomb clinking free from a WWII-era Zero, then a bomb’s-eye view of said device plummeting straight down through the hull of the U.S.S. Arizona. I knew. I knew right then and there that someone had finally decided to sink millions of dollars into yet another war epic a la Saving Private Ryan, and this time the subject would be Pearl Harbor.

That trailer did make me think. Saving Private Ryan was that rare mainstream movie that moved me to see it more than once, a movie that made use of Hollywood technology and razzle-dazzle in such a way as to make the horrors of war sphincter-clenchingly clear. It was a movie with sufficient power to survive dropping Ted Danson into the mix, with a speaking part, no less. Sometimes Hollywood can put in just enough heart-tugging pap to assure wide audience appeal without ruining the entire flick, and Saving Private Ryan is a case in point. So I had some hopes that maybe, just possibly, Pearl Harbor could do the same. But that bomb’s-eye view shot…that did not bode well.

Pearl Harbor, of course, was released to the movie-going public on Memorial Day, to high hopes as well as expertly-orchestrated hype. But “Pearl Harbor-Mania” never really materialized, although you can’t say the folks at Touchstone Pictures (read “Disney”) didn’t try, with a little help from their network television friends. That same night NBC trotted out Tom Brokaw and his tired “Greatest Generation” schtick for a TV special, “Pearl Harbor: Legacy of Attack.” Even with today’s anything-goes-for-a-buck marketing mentality, this is a touchy subject; you can bet Disney’s marketing execs were nearly shitting themselves trying to figure out a way to cash in on Pearl Harbor the movie, as well as Pearl Harbor the historic event, without incurring the considerable wrath of every veteran’s organization in the country. That’s pure conjecture on my part, I admit, but I’m still surprised there haven’t been any Taco Bell tie-ins, complete with that bug-eyed dog in aviator helmet and rakish scarf.

But I think the real exploitation is much subtler than that. It just bugs me to see a $145 million “epic” released on Memorial Day of the 60th year since the Japanese attack, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, no less. That sort of attempt at orchestrated integrity does a disservice to every life that was lost or forever altered by the events of December 4, 1941. Any claim that this movie honors the real-life event or its victims is pure bullshit—Disney/Touchstone is busily spinning the disappointing numbers to indicate Pearl Harbor’s poor showing is attributable to its 3-hour running time, its bad reviews, or stiff competition from Shrek or Tomb Raider. But conspicuously absent from their excuses is the fact that Pearl Harbor is one of the worst movies ever made. Exactly how they honor anyone or anything is beyond me—the whole thing amounts to nothing more than a long, admittedly engrossing attack scene meant only to keep asses firmly planted in $8.50-$9.00 apiece cineplex seats during the remaining, excruciating 2/3 of the film. The hackneyed, predictable love triangle that takes up the bulk of the narrative destroys whatever potential this movie ever had of paying homage to those who died or those who were drawn into a war that eventually killed over 50 million people.

It’s hard to say what could have made this movie something other than the contrived, plodding vehicle it is, devoid of any real message or soul. Maybe if the producers of Pearl Harbor took any sort of stand on the actual event it might have given the film a leg to stand on, but you won’t find that here. Maybe that is too much to expect from a movie that uses one of the most shattering events in a nation’s history as a mere backdrop for a cheesy, formulaic Hollywood romantic rivalry.

But what ultimately deflates Pearl Harbor is the fact that it has been rendered inoffensive to the largest number of ticket-buyers possible; this is done through a sort of “no-fault” interpretation of the historical event. Some might call this an even-handed treatment of an event with the potential for all sorts of racist pitfalls, but it is also interesting to note that Pearl Harbor will be released in Japan—far and away the most lucrative foreign market for U.S.-made films—on July 14. Even as whitewashed as this movie is, Disney/Touchstone acknowledges that the movie to be seen by Japanese audiences is not exactly the same one playing in other countries, due to “minor” dialogue and advertising revisions specific to that market.

It’s no coincidence that Brokaw was a part of the hype with his NBC special. In 1998 he published The Greatest Generation, a collection of biographical essays on the World War II generation; generally speaking, those born in about 1920. It was soon a bestseller, and since then he has followed with The Greatest Generation Speaks, and in May he released An Album of Memories: Personal Histories from The Greatest Generation. The huge success of these books has made Brokaw something of an expert on the WWII generation in the eyes of many.

So what’s not to like about Brokaw’s books? Why has every glowing reference to them grated on me incessantly in the four years since The Greatest Generation was first released? The title, for one thing. Being of a generation born forty years after the one in question, I can’t remember a time when the stories of that war didn’t surround me; the men and women who fought in that war lived all around me, and for the most part they acknowledged they were there and left it at that. What stories I did hear came from wives, children, and occasionally from the vets themselves. As I’ve gotten a bit older so have the vets, and they’ve loosened up a bit and told me some hair-raising tales. Absent from those tales was any reference to themselves as “the greatest generation.”

But even getting past the title, it soon becomes evident that Brokaw cannot resist inserting himself into any tale he can, and you notice a certain pattern to the stories: ‘here’s where he/she was before the war, here’s what he/she did, here’s where he/she is now, here’s what he/she thinks is wrong with today’s generation.’ “Everything comes too easy, nowadays you just don’t make the effort like you did in our day”; “A common lament of the World War II generation is the absence today of personal responsibility”; “These marriages and the values the men and women brought to them may seem curiously old-fashioned to modern young couples…in an age of divorce, pagers, cell phones, and fax machines…”; Brokaw’s book has a seemingly endless supply of lamentations such as these. Asking leading questions in order to egg someone into trashing the younger generation is not exactly my idea of good journalism, nor is it the most difficult thing to do. I can’t help feeling that by doing so, Brokaw is just as guilty of exploiting WWII veterans as Disney is for putting out an atrocity like Pearl Harbor.

The stories themselves, if separated from Brokaw’s self-referential passages and “greatest generation” rhetoric, are engrossing and in most cases genuinely inspirational. Probably the most refreshing passage in the entire book concerns the wartime experiences of Andy Rooney, who spent his war years as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes, even serving under George Patton. He is dismissive of Brokaw’s premise that “this is the greatest generation that any society could hope to produce.” Rooney says that the character of our current generation is just as strong as any other; his generation, however, “had a Depression, World War II, and a Cold War against which to test their character.”

Of course, The Greatest Generation and Pearl Harbor are not the first or by any means the last books or movies that draw on the experiences of the World War II generation. You will find endless shelves of material in your favorite bookstore and Hollywood is ever on the alert for ripe opportunities. Just keep in mind that the best way to learn about the experiences of that generation is simply to ask. The men and women who fought in World War II are in their seventies and eighties now and they won’t be around forever. They truly did do great, astonishing things, and they deserve better than what Pearl Harbor or Tom Brokaw have done; they deserve what we can offer simply by listening and learning for ourselves.


Originally published:
Issue Eleven
July 2001


(art • troy dockins)


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