When director Roland Emmerich comes to mind, the images that accompany the name are likely those of some of the most over the top action in recent cinematic history. Global environmental disaster in The Day After Tomorrow. Landmark’s destroyed by alien invasion in Independence Day. Lots of big, beautiful explosions.
Emmerich’s new film Midway, about the historic World War II battle, is therefore, by comparison, one of his most grounded pictures to date. It’s based on an actual event that really happened to real people, after all, with some of those individuals still being around (my screening included a special guest, a 106-year-old former member of the U.S.S. Hornet’s crew). But make no mistake, Midway is no less a traditional Roland Emmerich movie.
Midway actually starts a few years before World War II ever gets underway. Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) is a U.S. Navel attache stationed in Japan. At a dinner among allies, Layton receives a warning from his host, Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa). Japan wishes to be a world power, but because it is dependent on allies for resources like oil, the nation is in a precarious position. If those resources are threatened, Japan may strike back.
This of course, leads us to the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which opens the film proper. And start off with a bang is something Midway certainly does. The battle is big, chaotic and explosive. This is Roland Emmerich’s comfort zone, and it shows. While this is the fight the “good guys” lose, the sequence isn’t short changed at all. It would work as the explosive finale of any other action movie, and this is where we start.
The film’s narrative follows three concurrent groups of characters. Story one is Dick Best (Ed Skrein), Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) and Roy Pearce (Alexander Ludwig), as Naval pilots, serving under Admiral William Halsey (Dennis Quaid). Story two follows Edwin Layton, who is now an intelligence officer stationed at Pearl Harbor, working alongside Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), the new commander of Naval forces in the Pacific theater. Story three gives us the Japanese side of the fight, primarily through the eyes of Yamamoto.
You might want to brush up on the Battle of Midway before seeing Midway
Those are far from the only characters, however. There’s a brief diversion to follow Jimmy Doolitte (Aaron Eckhart) and his raiders on a bombing run of Tokyo. Mandy Moore plays Anne Best, wife of pilot Dick, who is holding down the home front with her daughter. Nick Jonas plays Machinest Mate Bruno Gaido on board Halsey’s U.S.S. Enterprise who gets a side story of his own. And that’s not all.
As you can probably start to tell, there are a lot of people in this movie. Midway wants to tell the entire story of World War II in the Pacific Theater from Peal Harbor to the titular battle, and that means covering a great deal of ground from many different angles and a lot of moving parts. That means there’s little time for things like character development, arcs, or in some cases, even introductions.
Woody Harrelson’s Admiral Nimitz appears on screen and is handed command of the Navy, but he’s not even given a name in his opening scene. It’s not until a half drunken sailor shouts at him later that we learn who this guy is. Names like Nimitz and Halsey probably ring a bell if you’ve ever studied this period of world history, as they have bridges and buildings named after them. If you’re already well versed in the history of World War II then you may know who many of these players are and how they all fit together, but it’s essentially required that you have your own knowledge because Midway doesn’t have time to stop and tell you who these people are.
That’s a shame, because these are some pretty impressive people. Midway makes a point to tell you up front that the events of the film really happened, and what’s mostly remarkable is how accurate the movie truly is. Many of the events portrayed in Midway, even some of the most dramatic aren’t invented to make the movie more exciting, they really happened.
Midway’s immense and impressive cast, including Woody Harrelson and Aaron Eckhart, does well with what little each is given to do
And there are some great actors here playing those great people. It’s a shame that we don’t get to see more of them. Woody Harrelson is great in pretty much everything that he does, and he is just as great here… in the few scenes he has. Aaron Eckhart’s role is blink and you’ll miss it short. His character is never mentioned until the first scene where he appears an hour into the movie, and about 10 minutes later we’re off to focus on other things. Little to none of it is bad, it’s just entirely unsatisfying.
The other part of the movie that gets short changed is the entire Japanese side of the battle. For a movie which claims in the end to be dedicated to both sides of the Battle of Midway, the Japanese are, without question, the “bad guys” here. Once again, you’re largely expected to already know why this war is even happening, because you certainly don’t get any understanding from the Japanese perspective.
While more modern World War II movies have tended to take a more nuanced approach with the events, especially on the side of the war that didn’t include actual Nazis, Midway feels like a bit of a throwback. The Americans are all (mostly) perfect heroes and the other side are the clear and obvious villains. There’s little room for nuance here. It feels a bit more complex than a John Wayne World War II movie from the 1950s, but only just. Fans of those sorts of films will be right at home.
In the end, of course, this isn’t designed to be a character driven story. Most of the characters of Midway aren’t the ones who are making war, they’re the ones war is happening to, and so the events of the story are what is driving them toward the event that movie is named for — and it drives them at a pretty good speed. While Midway is just short of two and a half hours long, there are only a couple of brief moments where you consider checking your watch.
Roland Emmerich’s skill as an action director shines through in Midway
And when we get there, yeah, The Battle of Midway is pretty impressive. Dogfights, dive bombers, submarines, battleships, everything comes together in a massive and impressive dance of bullets and explosions. The sound design and surround sound mix are top notch, making you feel like planes and bullets are all around you. Roland Emmerich knows how to make action spectacle.
Midway is likely going to be a movie that has trouble finding an audience. The further we get away from World War II the less it seems that there’s a taste for films on the subject. Since the movie basically requires you to already have some working knowledge of the events, it seems quite likely that only history nuts and those that already love to consume mass amounts of World War II media are likely to be particularly excited for this one.
In short, if you want to take your grandfather to the movies, he’s going to love Midway.
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