A review requested by Pat King, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Recommended musical accompaniment to this review.

Obviously, if we're talk about pure, rancid anti-cinematic imbecility, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is Michael Bay's worst movie and will almost certainly remain that way, for it's difficult to imagine a worse film that doesn't reach out and murder the post-production team before they have a chance to complete it. But if you asked me which one I hated the most, which one I would least want to have to see twice - as I now have, thanks to this damn fundraiser and the cruelty of those who would claim to be my friends - I wouldn't take a moment to answer: Pearl Harbor. Revenge of the Fallen is at least about giant robots from space. Pearl Harbor is a reprehensible mangling of history, which isn't inherently a bad thing - many a good film has looked at the annals of historical fact and decided "meh, fuckit", from the earliest days of narrative cinema - though instead of mangling history in the service of some insightful work of dramatic art and character study, it slathers its ahistorical twaddle onto a tepid, wannabe-Titanic love story, under the stewardship of a man whose career has ranged from the emotional depth of an 11-year-old boy all the way up to a 13-year-old boy.

The film is about two best friends from a version of Tennessee that couldn't be any more shamelessly, heart-tuggingly Rockwellian. Maybe if they threw a jumping, slobbery puppy in there, or something. Even before we meet a single human being, we've already heard Hans Zimmer's deeply earnest score, dripping with melancholic evocations of Classic Americana and warm, easy patriotism; we've already seen John Schwartzman's lusciously Malickian sunset photography in all the shades of nostalgia. And no insult meant to either Zimmer or Schwartzman, whose work throughout the film is of the highest caliber; it is hard to imagine anyone improving upon their work, which is plainly no less than what they had asked of them. The problem is not with the cinematography or the music per se, but with the underlying conception driving not just those elements but the whole ethos of the movie.

Simply put, this is what happens when Michael Bay does patriotism, and like everything else in his career, it's awful. Even more awful than when he tries to do smart sci-fi or satire, because Pearl Harbor requires a particularly delicate touch: it's a period film, which is already a minefield that requires either a keen awareness of how people moved and talked 60 years before the film's release, or a particular stylistic intention that justifies modern attitudes and deliberate anachronism, and neither of those apply here. It hardly requires mentioning that the guiding hand of the bombastic crapshow Armageddon wouldn't even be able to daydream about handling World War II with anything but the most stupidly gung-ho adoration for military doodads. And this isn't by any means a scenario that could benefit from Bay's characteristic enthusiasm giant metal cocks with the U.S. flag painted on them: Randall Wallace's screenplay is far more interested on the romantic triangle between good Tennessee boys in the U.S. Army Air Corps (later the Army Air Forces, a change that occurs in the time frame of the movie, though it's not mentioned), Capt. Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Capt. Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), who both fall in love with nurse Lt. Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), Rafe when he meets her in New York in January 1941, Danny at the U.S. Navy base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, after Rafe has left for Europe to fly with the RAF, and has been incorrectly reported dead. He re-enters their lives on 6 December, 1941, just so that the blow-up between them all can mirror in the most shockingly inappropriate way that whole attack thingy that shows up the next morning late afternoon. And things do not repair themselves for months, until Rafe and Danny both sign on for Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle's (Alec Baldwin) famed attack on the Japanese archipelago in April, 1942, when one of the men must make the ultimate sacrificcccccccccccccccccccc sorry, fell asleep on my keyboard.

The miracle of Pearl Harbor lies in the number of different ways that it's totally unacceptable as a work of cinema and a dramatic story. There's the obvious shortcomings the film as an enormous misrepresentation of living history (an apparent specialty of Wallace's - he also wrote Braveheart), ranging from the innocuous (Bay had the colors of the Mitsubishi Zeroes flown by the Japanese changed so they'd look cooler) to the reprehensible (the re-ordering of chronology to change what the military brass knew and when) to the fucking nuts. Fucking nuts isn't enough. This is a film in which President Roosevelt (Jon Voight), in order to make a point about America's determination, stands up out of his goddamn wheelchair.

It's also simply a wreck of storytelling, with its grotesque structural lurches from the love story to a historical wide view, without any rhyme or reason to how it attempts to combine those elements. Hell, the fact that FDR is in the movie at all is as deeply questionable of a choice as then having him turn into some kind of polio-defying superman: Pearl Harbor is a story about a lot of things, and it's muddled about all of them, but the machinations of Washington politics are absolutely not on the list of things that fit comfortably into the rest. It's frankly only just barely a film in which the attack on Pearl Harbor fits: the story climaxes with Rafe and Danny flying in the Doolittle Raid, while in the scheme of things, the attack is more of an inconvenience that redirects the characters' attention without actually changing the stakes at all. And the poor writing isn't limited to form: the film's dialogue is justly infamous for its mixture of tortured verbiage in a weak attempt to ape '40s speech, and its ludicrous, artless bluntness: "I think World War II just started", delivered with forced determination by Hartnett, is right up there with "Come on, Hitler, I'll buy you a glass of lemonade" from 2002's Max in the annals of lines from historical fiction that make the entire medium of cinema a little bit shabbier.

The characters and acting are atrocious: Affleck, Hartnett, and Beckinsale are an unholy trinity of blandness and low-charisma, and while there are a few flashes in the supporting cast of anything resembling humanity - Baldwin makes a good Doolittle, and Mako has the requisite solemnity as Admiral Yamamoto - the great majority of the supporting cast is distinctive more for being curiously terrible than fading into vanilla obscurity like the leads. The way William Fichtner lurches into the movie like a drunk asshole in the 1923 prologue sets a poor standard that the rest of the movie keeps folllowing: when even as magnetic a presence as Michael Shannon comes off like a flailing moron, you know that things are going deeply wrong.

And of course, Bay conducts all of this with maximum bombast and no worries about how much, if any, sense it all makes. His customary beer commercial aesthetic not being suited for a story of people living and dreaming in 1941, he instead goes for the romantic drama version of the same, which is why we get so many eye-searing sunsets and shots of trees and water - cut by the four-man editing team, amusingly enough, with the same whiz-bang madness of the average car chase or gun battle in a Bay picture. It's even more why we get Evelyn and Danny making love in the most overwrought, aggressive scene of impressionistic gentleness ever put to film, with soft focus and gentle lighting and sheets blowing in the wind that are exactly the Bay version of soap opera sex scenes, trite imagery blown up to 11 and screaming at us. There are flourishes that are the worst thing in the whole world: a newsreel photographer gets shot, so the camera falls to the ground and records him dying and we see it in cocked black-and-white, a scene that recalls Saving Private Ryan as filtered through unapologetic assholery.

It is impossible to catalogue all the ways in which Pearl Harbor is tasteless, overblown, or boring; it's not even good as mindless war action, with the 7 December attack itself a messy collage of disconnected scenes that finds Bay's mayhem skills at a low ebb. If there's a single positive element to this movie, I am certain that I cannot name it; it is overstuffed bullshit that enthusiastically mocks real history and the real sacrifices of human beings who lived long enough to respond to the film with acidic dismissal. There's more incompetent filmmaking out there - but not by a terribly huge margin - but there aren't many films that I find more genuinely vile.