'Midway': Film Review

An old-fashioned war film unlikely to move younger viewers — or many older ones.
11/8/2019

'Independence Day' director Roland Emmerich turns his attention to real war in a WWII saga starring Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Mandy Moore, Ed Skrein and Nick Jonas.

Questions of quality aside, how large is the potential audience in 2019 for a movie like Roland Emmerich's Midway? There seems to be an endless appetite for films exploring the Nazi horrors that made fighting World War II necessary; and artists like Christopher Nolan will likely continue finding new ways to reframe this combat for contemporary sensibilities. But how many people want staunchly old-fashioned pictures like Midway, which simply use modern digital tools to re-enact narratives America has been telling itself since the 1940s? Even what was once known as the History Channel appears mostly to have moved on from this stuff (and from history in general) — perhaps because the demographic that clings to romantic notions of a "Greatest Generation" shrinks by the day.

Unfortunately, even a moviegoer who (like this one) is theoretically willing to see yesteryear's war-film genre reanimated with 21st-century production values will find little to love in Midway, which, despite a big budget and talented cast, is oddly unmoving. In his first feature screenwriting credit, Wes Tooke offers stiff dialogue and sometimes oddly structured action, leaving much dramatic potential unexploited. Yes, Emmerich stages plenty of aerial battles in which fighter pilots plunge through hailstorms of sizzling projectiles. But those hoping to get a thrill would be better served by revisiting his Earth-vs-aliens war flick Independence Day.

Though it isn't immediately apparent, this film's look at the battle of Midway revolves largely around one real-life fighter pilot who, as depicted here, wouldn't have been out of place in Top Gun: a brash, rule-flouting "cowboy" who, we're told on several occasions, flies as if he doesn't care if he'll make it home alive. Dick Best is a name few screenwriters would have the balls to invent, and the pic cherishes his cocksure exploits. Played with a dubious accent by English actor Ed Skrein (Game of Thrones), he's a gum-smacking daredevil who enjoys disabling his plane on training runs just so he can prove he'll be able to land if his plane is ever really hit by enemy fire. That scares the hell out of his flying partner James Murray (Keean Johnson), but you can bet all that practice will pay off in the end.

We're told later on that "men like Dick Best are the reason we're gonna win this war," but there are few such men onscreen. In a much smaller part, Nick Jonas plays sailor Bruno Gaido, whose spontaneous heroism during one Japanese attack earned him a promotion on the spot. It's a movie-like but true incident; while that should be enough, the film gilds the lily later on, giving the young star a moment of brave defiance that is probably pure fiction.

Balancing Best's swagger is the movie's other key lesser-known character: straitlaced Edwin T. Layton, who works with diplomats in the film's 1937 prologue and, by the time of Pearl Harbor, is a gifted intelligence officer. Patrick Wilson is perfectly cast as Layton; where some older castmembers are wasted here (Woody Harrelson cashes a check as Admiral Chester Nimitz) and younger ones are sometimes hard to distinguish from each other, Wilson projects an intelligent earnestness that almost brings the film's many office-bound strategy sessions to life. Working with an underappreciated code breaker, Layton had warned superiors that something like the Pearl Harbor attack might happen. "There's the man who tried to warn us!," one of his superiors says ruefully after the attack, and the script hammers that told-you-so home in a couple of scenes that follow. Fortunately, Nimitz makes better use of Layton as the Americans try to outsmart Japanese forces in the months to come.

About that Pearl Harbor attack: It's weirdly unaffecting here, given the resources Emmerich has to bring its shocking violence home. In one second, an officer is joking with a sailor about "chasing tail"; in the next, hundreds of Japanese planes are strafing them and dropping bombs on battleships. Surely, the contrast between banality and profound destruction is intentional, meaning to underline how stark the surprise attack was for a nation still refusing to enter the war. But here, it just feels like uncertain storytelling.

We soon move to Japan, where the pic finds Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) caught in political struggles about the war's direction. Having characterized Yamamoto (in that 1937 prologue) as someone who tried to avoid conflict with the U.S., the film follows him and other naval leaders in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, trying to disable the remaining U.S. Pacific forces.

While Midway's midsection is clearly aimed at military-history buffs, assuming that viewers are keeping maps in their heads of ship movements and secret military bases, the script offers some formulaic human-interest ingredients. Mandy Moore plays the movie's sole significant female character, Best's wife — a stock figure of "go show 'em what you're made of" emotional support. Aaron Eckhart drops in to play Jimmy Doolittle — who enters the film rather dramatically, but whose famous raid on Tokyo happens, inexplicably, in the pic's margins.

Though the movie clearly wants to do right by the players in its story, it rarely brings them to life as real people; it also fails to go the other direction, turning them into the larger-than-life personalities that might fuel an openly jingoistic take on this material. Men take the time, mid-combat, to say things like "God damn it, that magnificent son of a bitch actually found them!" But their canned amazement isn't contagious, and, even viewed without the filter of one's feelings about the morality of war, their feats are rarely thrilling.

Production company: Centropolis Entertainment
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Etsushi Toyokawa, Mandy Moore, Aaron Eckhart, Darren Criss, Nick Jonas
Director: Roland Emmerich
Screenwriter: Wes Tooke
Producers: Roland Emmerich, Harald Kloser
Executive producers: Alastair Burlingham, Ute Emmerich, Mark Gordon, Mark Jackson
Director of photography: Robby Baumgartner
Production designer: Kirk M. Petruccelli
Costume designer: Mario Davignon
Editor: Adam Wolfe
Composers: Harald Kloser, Thomas Wanker
Casting director: Andrea Kenyoon

Rated PG-13, 138 minutes