Romancing the Republic


Disney’s Pearl Harbor delivers an epic love story, but the pilot-nurse-pilot triangle is a secondary romance. On a grander scale, argue some critics, a cadre of powerful mythmakers use a rose-filtered version of America to seduce audiences suffering from post-Cold War anxiety over the nation’s character and global purpose. The fantasy of “a democracy with lofty ideals” is what UC Berkeley professor Ronald Takaki calls the “master narrative of American history.” And it turns out the U.S. military establishment is the Cyrano to Disney’s Christian, courting viewers for support from behind the facade of American greatness.

In keeping with the Disney tradition, Pearl Harbor‘s America glows with sunshine. Winning an interracial boxing match spells triumph rather than trouble for the black victor. American military personnel train their ire on foreign attackers, not domestic lookalikes. Against unbelievable odds, the hero gets the girl. War is more a computer-enhanced adventure than a personal, grim experience.

The filmmakers have eschewed characterizations of Pearl Harbor as a serious war movie or documentary. “We tried to be accurate, but it’s certainly not meant to be a history lesson,” producer Jerry Bruckheimer has said. The particulars of what happened—that Japan bombed the harbor, leaving over 2400 casualties, presumably out of concern for its oil supply, and that U.S. diplomatic and intelligence efforts failed to avert the tragedy—are formalities. More important for the movie and its military benefactors is the meaning of Pearl Harbor to Americans today, the moral righteousness, popular unity, and military heroism that the moment represents.

The script apparently made the rounds among Japanese nationals, Japanese Americans, and U.S. historians. But it was most heavily vetted by those who had the ability to make or break the $140 million movie—the American military. Officials were not shy about putting their stamp on the project. “Any film that portrays the military as negative is not realistic to us,” a Pentagon liaison told the Chicago Times, which is why films unfavorable to the military such as Courage Under Fire haven’t received an iota of government support.

Payoff for cooperating with the big guns: unprecedented permission to film on military bases including Pearl Harbor, props and input, and the invaluable stamp of authenticity. And not least an aircraft carrier for the film’s May 21 Hawai’i premiere. Recruiters, in turn, hoping to boost sagging numbers with the kind of enrollment that Top Gun inspired, have stationed themselves outside movie theaters.

The film’s run dovetails with a spate of Bush administration military moves: a missile-defense shield proposal that NATO allies view as superfluous; the refusal to back a global biological-weapons ban; a neo-Cold War hostility toward China and North Korea; even Bush’s approval of the controversial $160 million World War II memorial on the Washington mall.

Production on the movie started in April 2000, before anyone knew who would take the White House, but appeasing “warmongers” has long been a bipartisan project, argues foreign policy expert and navy veteran Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. “There’s such a huge vested corporate interest” for military contractors and lobbyists, he explains, that any administration would ignore them at great peril. “The important thing about the missile-defense shield is not that it works,” he says, “but that it’s expensive. It’ll keep the military-industrial complex going for a long time.”

Movies like Pearl Harbor can stir enthusiasm for policies that actual circumstances don’t warrant, argue Johnson and fellow critics. Promoting an image of a patriotic, unified, irreproachable America in this case is key, and so is omitting any reminder of an uglier past or present. Producers are cutting potentially offensive sections from versions headed overseas, especially to Japan. But American audiences aren’t getting the whole picture, either.

In February 1942, approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned in a direct government response to Japan’s attack. Although this mass internment occurred two months before the famed Doolittle raid on Tokyo, the triumphant conclusion to the film, there is no mention of it either in the plot or the voiceover epilogue summing up the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. No mere bygone, the four-year internment scourge has engendered comparisons with Europe’s concentration camps. Despite a reparations movement that in 1988 won $20,000 for each internee and a government apology, fears of political persecution continue to haunt some Japanese Americans, according to documentarian Frank Abe, whose film Conscience and the Constitution highlights the resistance of internees who went on trial rather than submit to the draft.

Although anti-Japanese sentiment and violence were widespread by 1941, according to ethnic studies professor Jonathan Okamura of the University of Hawai’i, the film hardly hints at such hatred. Entertainment and news media, Okamura says, routinely portrayed Japanese Americans as spies and traitorous labor agitators, and Asians in general as “the yellow peril.” Asian-born immigrants were denied U.S. citizenship until 1952.

“Jap sucker” is one of the film’s strongest epithets, but from the cheering heard by some moviegoers during the anti-Japanese moments, it seems real life is harsher than fiction. Fears of backlash from the movie have prompted Japanese American organizations to beef up security at their headquarters.

The film also fails to show that nonwhites actually lived on Hawai’i, let alone died in scores from misdirected American antiaircraft fire during the bombing. “For the United States, anytime you have native people, you’re in trouble, because it contradicts the idea that there was free land to take over,” explains native activist and author Haunani-Kay Trask of the University of Hawai’i.

“Paradise” to the movie’s promoters, Hawai’i is an “occupied colony,” according to Trask, as far as the indigenous population is concerned. Strategically located between the mainland and Asia, Hawai’i was annexed by the U.S. in 1898, made a territory in 1900, and declared a state in 1959. With more than 100,000 military personnel and dependents in the area, the federal government owns at least one-sixth of the land. Sovereignty activists have for decades protested the environmental destruction, interference with cultural practices, overpolicing of natives, and housing shortages they argue come with U.S. military domination.

“Hawai’i is a symbol of U.S. imperialism,” says Berkeley professor Takaki. Its true history, says Johnson, is as likely to show up in a blockbuster as the struggles between Viequenses or Okinawans and the U.S. military. It’s “taboo,” he says, “to talk about the place of the military in our society and how it seems to be genuinely out of control.”

The cotton candy artifice of the “master narrative,” has gotten Pearl Harbor universal pans from critics. But Americans are still flocking to see it. As Johnson says, “Don’t kid yourself about what an incredible PR apparatus the U.S. military has.” Disney’s no PR slouch, either. And for both beneficiaries, the ticket to victory lies in the seductive power of the American myth.