‘Midway’ earnest and enjoyable, but feels out of place during November awards season

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 11/8/19

For those wondering whether the world needed another movie about the Battle of Midway Island during World War II, it’s worth pointing out that director Roland Emmerich’s latest big screen bonanza …

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‘Midway’ earnest and enjoyable, but feels out of place during November awards season

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Dennis Quaid stars in 'Midway.'
Dennis Quaid stars in 'Midway.'
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate
Posted

For those wondering whether the world needed another movie about the Battle of Midway Island during World War II, it’s worth pointing out that director Roland Emmerich’s latest big screen bonanza eschews many of the missteps that plagued the 1976 star-studded original. Gone are the tepid battle scenes, some of them footage lifted from John Ford’s 1942 Oscar-winning documentary “Battle of Midway.” Gone is the hokey romantic subplot, or any for that matter. Gone are fictitious characters based on real people who are properly identified in the new film. Moreover, the 1976 film instantly felt anachronistic in the Cold War era, a callback to a film genre fading from prominence around the same time as John Wayne.

Perhaps today’s world craves stories with a clear delineation of good and evil. Maybe the passage of time and historical imperative necessitates remembering last century’s war heroes. Either way, Emmerich’s “Midway” exceeds any reasonable expectations. It doesn’t break any molds, but it’s an earnest attempt at memorializing this historically significant event and its key contributors.

Unlike the 1976 film, Emmerich opens with a recreation of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which is used as a bookend for the Battle of Midway six months later. Reeling from that overwhelming defeat, the U.S. Navy revamps its approach to the Pacific theater, starting with the appointment of Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) to command the fleet and a re-emphasis on intelligence gathering, led by Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton (Patrick Wilson), whose early warnings about the vulnerability of Pearl Harbor were ignored by his superiors. Layton’s Japanese counterpart is Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano), a former confidant and moderate whose misgivings about awakening the sleeping American giant are ignored by hardliners bent on war.

The most intriguing segments of “Midway” are the competing cat-and-mouse military tactics, as strategists on both sides try to crack codes and outwit their opponents. Midway Island represents a strategic foothold for both America and Japan — if Japan could capture Midway, its air bases could serve as launching points for raids on Hawaii and even the western contidental U.S. Meanwhile, U.S. strategists are can use Japan’s desire for Midway to set a trap that could reshift the balance of power in the Pacific.

Emmerich particularly shines a spotlight on the contributions of Layton and Dick Best (Ed Skrein), an ace American pilot whose aviation exploits culminated with bombing two Japanese carriers during the Battle of Midway. While Emmerich relies a bit heavily on the blur of CGI throughout “Midway,” one virtue of his visual palette is that it effectively captures the hellish heroism of dive bombing, with pilots asked to fly directly into a hail tracer fire, often while being pursued by enemy planes from the rear. Few pilots return alive, each of them accepting that the sacrifice of a few is worth the destruction of an entire warship or aircraft carrier.

Even though Emmerich scales down any shoehorned character backstories, there’s still too much idle conversations and rah-rah speechifying for a 138-minute film that could have clocked in much shorter. Aaron Eckhart shows up for a few minutes as pilot Jimmy Dolittle, apparently just so Emmerich can give him a rousing speech (like Bill Pullman in Emmerich’s “Independence Day”) and later be included in the closing “What happened to ...” montage. And since Harry Styles got a role in “Dunkirk,” I guess that’s why Nick Jonas shows up here, bestowed with a noble death and one of few f-bombs a PG-13 movie can spare.

Usually the only difference between Emmerich and Michael Bay is that Emmerich operates under the delusion that he’s making weighty cinema. “Midway” could have been a lot worse, and it’s actually quite good in parts. Still, it’s more of a summer blockbuster than a November awards season release.

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