Midway

I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve“.

Like a Grumman TBF Avenger riddled with bullet holes, Midway, Roland Emmerich‘s (Independence Day, The Patriot, Stargate) latest attempt at history,  just barely maintains its glide above wreckage. While not necessarily considered a remake, it is worth noting that there has already been a film of the same name, back in 1976, directed by Jack Smight, and starring Toshiro Mifune, Henry Fonda, and Charlton Heston. I rather prefer the Japanese equivalent of Das Boot, Tora Tora Tora (Richard Fleischer, Akira Kurosawa, Toshio Matsuda, Kinji Fukasaku, 1970) or John Ford‘s 1942 captured live footage during his time on the atoll, The Battle of Midway, which was partially used in the aforementioned Midway (1976). You may be asking why I bring up Tora Tora Tora as a superior film, when it covered Pearl Harbor, not Midway. Well, in typical Emmerich fashion, in order to achieve an even grander scale of scope, he not only covers the decisive battle of Midway, but also dips into the Doolittle Raids and a recap of Pearl Harbor. While not depicted, Midway, also makes sure to name drop Coral Sea, an important naval battle a month prior to the battle of Midway. The point I’m trying to land on is that 2019’s Midway while not 100% historically accurate, does try to give an appreciated crash course lesson, in highlight reel form, of the events leading up to and surrounding what is arguably the most pivotal American victory during World War II’s Pacific Theater campaign. For any fellow history buff, the film, while not very entertaining, does have some admirable behind the scenes research production. From the names of the four Japanese aircraft carriers, the three American carriers, the Aleutian islands ruse, to the various commanding officers, importance of intelligence department code breaking at Station Hypo, right down to exact POW results, and hairline missile misses, Midway is certainly not The Patriot. Emmerich put some time into the planning and coordination of the film, despite boasting quite an awful script and lead. But in the same stroke of detail and intricacies albeit superficial, the film risks coming off as too much or too glossed over for those unfamiliar with the historical events surrounding the United States’ precious naval victory.

That’s the biggest praise I can give Midway, that it’s an adequate overview summation of key historical moments revolving the battle. I’d argue that it attempts to be as accurate as possible with very little Hollywood story adjustments. It’s equivalent to a passable intro course paper written on the topic. You’ll get brief insight, some fun facts, mostly accurate numbers and names, but no personal input or opinion. Midway is best described as middling. There’s nothing extravagant about it, which comes as a shock with an estimated $100 million budget. The special effects and use of CGI all look very dated, particularly the lackluster explosions, subpar sound editing/effects of various calibre rounds and roaring engines whizzing across and towards the screen. Most noticeable of all were the little computer generated sailors and pilots running across the decks of ships from afar, all so obviously and clunkily animated. In order to avoid having to revisit Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001), I compared Midway‘s sense of scale and action realism to the more recent WWII entry, Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017). The results are not too favorable for the prior, seeing as how both films had a very similar budget range. It’s clear to see which project had the better end result and legacy. Under the right filmmaker and DoP, such as Nolan and Hoyte van Hoytema, along with the director’s proclivity against CGI, war films can turn out in spectacular fashion. I need not list all the classics going through your head at this very moment: I will say that the exquisite trailer for 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019) is better than all of Midway. This may all come as a shock – it certainly did for me – especially seeing how Emmerich is no stranger to grand scale combat and effects work. Midway even has DoP Robby Baumgartner, who handled both Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada, 2018) and The Guest (Adam Wingard, 2014) very very well. But whether it be that this was meant for IMAX enjoyment, I just wasn’t in the mood, or more likely, the lead performances were exhaustive to follow, Midway, falls rather flat, rather fast. 

If you manage to look past the incredibly underwhelming effects and silent gunfire, you may find it hard to ignore the bland characters and generic script. There are few things I find more annoying than a film trying to force you to care for characters that have given you no reason to do so in the first place. I understand that these are characters based on real veterans, many of whom sacrificed their lives for their country, but unfortunately Ed Skrein, Darren Criss, Nick Jonas, Luke Kleintank, and Keean Johnson, are not names to carry your film. Despite having gained some respect from me for his voluntarily willingness to hand his Hellboy role to Daniel Dae Kim, having Skrein as the central protagonist to bear the entire emotional weight of the historical event was a massive intelligence failure. I can very clearly imagine a better narrative and central performance for the film, had they been given to more capable and expressive actors. The handful of fights have some very brief moments of excitement, but lack both an emotional weight and an immersive punch to them. I never felt like I was in the rumbling seat of the Dauntless or Vindicator dive bombers, praying to not get shot down. Nor was I ever concerned for any of the destroyers or carriers being torpedoed and engulfed by the roaring flames. Midway was at its strongest when it focused on the actually sympathetic and likeable Patrick Wilson as Edwin T. Layton, a too brief Woody Harrelson as the silver-haired Chester Nimitz, and even the contemplative Tadanobu Asano as Japanese Rear Admiral Yamaguchi. Those were the characters I found myself caring for, along with some of their interactions with minor supporting cast. Alas, those better personal and meditative moments, like the calm before the storm, were cut too brief and unfortunately not fully explored. 

Odds are that if you’re seeing Midway, you either like history, or you fancied spending some time with your father. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth rushing out to anything less than an IMAX screening, because the regular format was incredibly underwhelming. For a massive war film helmed by a capable director, I’d be surprised to find anyone who thought it was a worthwhile, high-octane historical action spree. If you are reasonably opposed to dealing with an adequately researched yet dragged out two hour runtime (in which half of that time is dedicated to tolerating Ed Skrein fail at the cocky pilot stereotype), I’d consider checking out Last Christmas (Paul Feig, 2019) instead. Luckily for you, my colleague, Henry, has all your yuletide joy covered! After all, we are officially in the Christmas season. 

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Hello, is it Lee you're looking for? View All →

Film Studies/History graduate, using my love and knowledge of the medium to pass as a critic. I’m typically known for longer write-ups, and my eclectic taste ranging from awards darlings, European filmé, indie spirits, cinematic universes, and most notably 80s cult films. Hope you’ve enjoyed your visit, and remember, watch whatever, whenever, with whomever.

2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Yes! Yes! Yes! I agree with everything you said. I was one of those who enjoyed learning about the history of the Pacific theater battles but, even with my pedestrian interest, found this movie hollow, without details and pandering. Most of all, I was so surprised to find out after the movie that Dick Best wasn’t SUPPOSED to be an irritating figure that I should dislike, despite his feats. (I do think he looks more like Freddie Mercury and would have done well to have portrayed him in Bohemian Rhapsody, though we would all still dislike him, probably, and wouldn’t have helped the movie be better.)
    Anyway, thank you for putting into words how I felt about Midway! Keep up the good words/works!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the incredibly kind words, Mrs. Wheeling! I’m glad that I wasn’t the only one feeling this immense sense of underwhelming vapidness. In the same vein as your Dick Best comment, I was frankly shocked that he was a real person. Ed Skrein was so antipathetic that I began thinking he was a Hollywood stand in character. Or maybe a composite character at best. But alas, I share your surprise.

    I’ve always thought Sacha Barron Cohen was an ideal choice, for Mercury. But after looking at some headshots of Skrein, I could see the resemblance if he were to grow a mustache. But as you insinuated, I think it was best that he never got involved.

    Like

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