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Cinema: Pearl Harbor’s Top Gun

7 minute read
Jess Cagle

One thing about Jerry Bruckheimer: he really knows how to blow stuff up. As one of Hollywood’s biggest and most durable producers, he blasted through Alcatraz in The Rock, tossed an airliner full of psychos onto the Las Vegas strip in Con Air and destroyed a hurling asteroid in Armageddon. In the 1980s, along with his late partner, the fast-living Don Simpson, he changed the movie business forever with a highly comic, highly charged formula of music, muscles and mayhem. Through sales of movie tickets, videocassettes and sound tracks, he has generated an estimated $11 billion. And now, wouldn’t you know it, he is going soft.

Not that Pearl Harbor is a wimpy movie. Plenty of things explode, but it’s the most serious-minded film of Bruckheimer’s career, and it has arrived with not only some of the greatest hype in history but the burden of history as well. Critics will tell you in no uncertain terms that it creaks under this weight. Bruckheimer will tell you he doesn’t need their approval. “If I had to go by reviews, I wouldn’t be making movies,” says the producer, sounding a little grumpy on opening day, just hours after the New York Times called Pearl Harbor “defiantly, extravagantly average.” “All I know,” adds Bruckheimer, “is that we’re selling out at theaters.”

But those who know Bruckheimer believe he is sensitive to what others say about him; his protective wife Linda has been known to send scathing notes to journalists who treat him badly. Though he won’t admit his age (“In Hollywood, they think you’re over the hill at a certain point”), he is said to be 55 and seems to be hearing a certain ticking. With Pearl Harbor, he is fighting for respectability and a grown-up audience. The battle began two years ago.

The idea for the film came from Todd Garner, a Disney executive at the time. He approached Bruckheimer, who says he was intrigued by “a period that had a lot of innocence and a lot of brutality at the same time.” The concept now seems like a no-brainer; Steven Spielberg (with Saving Private Ryan) and Tom Brokaw (in his Greatest Generation books) have spun America’s WW II nostalgia into gold, but market research for Pearl Harbor showed that the desirable high-moviegoing audience of adults ages 19 to 24 generally had no idea what Pearl Harbor was.

Enter Michael Bay, who had wowed young audiences for Bruckheimer as director of Bad Boys, The Rock and Armageddon. “I felt the time was right for him to make a spectacular movie,” says Bruckheimer, who is known for his loyalty. “Michael is his generation’s Spielberg or Lucas.” (Pearl Harbor’s costume designer, Michael Kaplan, is the same guy who cut up sweat shirts for Bruckheimer’s 1983 Flashdance.) With screenwriter Randall Wallace (Braveheart), they took a cue from the Titanic playbook and composed a central fictional love story. Two strapping pilots (Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett), friends since boyhood, fall for a hot nurse (Kate Beckinsale). Ultimate sacrifices ensue. Authentic figures such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Jon Voight), Lieut. Colonel James H. Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) and heroic black mess attendant Doris “Dorie” Miller (Cuba Gooding Jr.) appear in supporting roles, and the backdrop reaches for historical accuracy–at least until it gets in the way of the main story.

Attention to detail did not come cheap. Disney balked at the proposed budget of $208 million. No one knew how well a jingoistic American anthem would sound in the important overseas markets, “so we had to figure zero for Japan,” says Disney studio chief Peter Schneider. He would later ask Bay to reshoot an inflammatory scene in which a civilian Japanese dentist working in Hawaii was depicted as a spy for his homeland.

Schneider is now hopeful about Pearl Harbor’s prospects abroad (it will be released in Japanese theaters July 14 with minor changes in dialogue but with the same title); but before the studio would agree to make the movie, Bay and Bruckheimer had to shave the cost. They gave up their own up-front fees, persuaded cast members like Affleck to take pay cuts and canceled traditional studio-movie goodies like a wrap party and jackets for the crew. “We joked that this was the most expensive independent movie ever made,” says Bay, who threatened to quit several times over budget and ratings issues. (He wanted an R to depict the horrors of war; Disney wanted PG-13 to get more teens in the seats.) Still, he trimmed the price to $145 million on the orders of Joe Roth, who was then head of the studio. When Roth resigned, Disney chairman Michael Eisner demanded an additional $10 million cut. Bay walked again. “I wasn’t sure we’d get it made,” says Bruckheimer. Eventually, he persuaded Bay to return. Finally “green-lighted” at $135 million, the budget was the biggest approved in Hollywood history. “Jerry is the great politician,” says Bay, who ultimately brought the movie in at $140 million (not including marketing costs).

Bruckheimer admits that he went into the movie with little knowledge of Pearl Harbor. “I never took history after high school,” he says. And he had no personal tie to the war. His father, a first-generation German immigrant, did not fight in WW II. Instead, Bruckheimer’s dad scraped by selling clothes in a fancy Detroit men’s store while his son imagined life beyond his meager surroundings. “I could stretch out my arms in my bedroom and touch both walls,” recalls Bruckheimer. He escaped to the movies as often as he could and dreamed of making films like David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia, epic pictures with “bigger-than-life heroes, bigger-than-life villains.” In 1967, The Graduate, with its Simon and Garfunkel songs, showed him how to wed pop movies with pop music. In 1970, after a brief career in advertising, Bruckheimer moved to Hollywood. As a fledgling producer, he put Blondie on the sound track of American Gigolo. He chose Faith Hill for Pearl Harbor because “it’s an all-American movie, and she’s an all-American artist.”

Flashdance was the first collaboration between Bruckheimer and Simpson, a former Paramount executive. Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun made them legends. Also legendary was Simpson’s voracious appetite for drugs. “You knew it was coming,” says Bruckheimer of his partner’s 1996 overdose. “It’s amazing that he lived as long as he did.” Simpson had been considered the duo’s creative force, but since his death, Bruckheimer has proved himself with low-budget winners and big-budget blockbusters. Last year he pulled in nearly $280 million at domestic theaters with Gone in Sixty Seconds, Coyote Ugly and Remember the Titans. He has also scored on TV with the crime drama CSI.

“Jerry is still making movies that Don would have loved, but he’s interested in doing other things,” says Kathy Nelson, Bruckheimer’s music consultant and supervisor since 1984. Indeed, Bruckheimer, who is surprisingly soft-spoken for a man whose movies are so loud, has begun working with more established directors such as Joel Schumacher and Ridley Scott. He has even thought of directing himself. But there’s one thing about Bruckheimer that won’t change. “My biggest thrill is when I sit in a theater and watch people laugh and cry and cheer,” he says. “You start with a little idea and make it happen and watch it explode.” Pearl Harbor may be loud enough to drown out the critics.

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