A film review by Craig J. Koban November 21, 2019

MIDWAY jj
½ 

2019, PG-13, 138 mins.

 

Ed Skrein as Dick Best  /  Luke Kleintank as Lieutenant Clarence Earle Dickinson  /  Patrick Wilson as Rear Admiral Edwin T. Layton  /  Luke Evans as Commander Wade McClusky  /  Aaron Eckhart as Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle  /  Nick Jonas as Bruno  /  Woody Harrelson as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz  /  Mandy Moore as Anne Best  /  Dennis Quaid as Vice Admiral William 'Bull' Halsey  /  Tadanobu Asano as Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi  /  Darren Criss as Commander Eugene Lindsey

Directed by Roland Emmerich  /  Written by Wes Tooke

 The new historical war drama MIDWAY is the second lavish budgeted silver screen account of one of the more instrumental battles and turning points for America's involvement in the Pacific Theater of World War II.  Taking place roughly six months after Japan's sneak attack on the U.S. bases at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the Battle of Midway represented a major victory for the U.S. as they stopped an attacking and invading Japanese naval fleet.  Of course, this story was first told in movie form in the 1976 Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda starring war epic of the same name, which then featured the then unheard of "Sensurround", or basically what we'd probably refer to now as ear piercing bass. 

The newest version of MIDWAY is from director Roman Emmerich, no stranger to films (albeit fictional) of mass destruction (INDEPENDENCE DAY, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, and 2012) and represents his second fact based war drama after the underrated American Revolution centric THE PATRIOT.  A self professed passion project for the German born filmmaker, MIDWAY had difficulty securing the massive budget required from a major Hollywood studio, which forced Emmerich to fundraise most of its $100 million cost (making it one of the most expensive independently financed war films ever).  MIDWAY, to its esteemed credit, contains some astonishingly credible visual effects used to recreate its battle in question, not to mention a handful of rousing action set pieces that wholly delivery on a level of visceral thrills.  That, and the screenplay here by Wes Tooke is sometimes surprisingly democratic in its story focus on both the American and Japanese side of the war.  Beyond that, though, MIDWAY really just amounts to a very polished and expensive looking (and dramatically fluffy) TV movie of the week that just happens to feature a lot of A-list actors that are seriously phoning in their respective performances.   

MIDWAY does feature a pretty impactful recreation of the Pearl Harbor attacks, which serves as a quick prologue to the later Battle of Midway and the introduction of the U.S. into WWII.  After this, MIDWAY takes on another event pre-Midway in the subsequent "Doolittle Raid" of April of 1942, a counter attack led by Col. James Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart), with a small chunk (maybe too small) of the film's running time devoted to him relying on Chinese assistance to get back to his fleet alive after being downed by the Japanese (considering that MIDWAY had a reasonable amount of its budget provided by Chinese investors, it's no wonder why this is even in the film, despite the fact that we really get a bare boned play-by-play recreation of the raids in question).  More compelling rendered is the subplot involving Patrick Wilson's Edwin Layton, who's a member of the Office of Naval Intelligence and is introduced in an opening scene in 1937 Tokyo that eerily foreshadows Japan's involvement in the war later. 

 

 

More crucially, Layton's advocacy of meticulous code breaking was an instrumental part of ensuring that Pearl Harbor would never happen again as well as giving the U.S. the decided edge in the Battle of Midway itself.  Using his crackerjack intelligence team, Layton is able to deduce with reasonable levels of accuracy a potential Japanese invasion and offensive targeting in Midway, which leads to a mass American mobilization of troops to delivery what he hopes will be a massive knock out blow to their enemies in the Pacific.  It's at this point when we're introduced to the rest of the film's long list of characters, some of whom include dive bomber commander Dick Best (DEADPOOL's excellent Ed Skrein, in an achingly bad and distracting New Jersey accent), as well as the horribly and laughably wigged Woody Harrelson as Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz and the mostly growling Dennis Quaid as Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey (the most this film taught me about the man was that he talked in a raspy, pirate-like voice and he had a bad case of shingles). Then there's Luke Evans' as Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky, who has deep trust issues with Best's worthiness to lead the bomb mission against the Japanese, mostly because he sees him as a reckless cowboy.  Those obligatory arcs seem ripped from countless other war films, making MIDWAY feel like it's on storytelling autopilot. 

None of these characters - with the exception of Wilson's leader of the code breakers - is afforded much depth and nuance, which is not assisted by the fact that nearly all of the actors here are stuck with pretty one-note parts that require them to delivery an awful lot of clunky war prep dialogue.  The female characters - the few that are present here - are treated even worse, which is really reflected with Mandy Moore being given such a nothing role as Best's loyal wife.  Layton's wife also figures in, with her most distinguishing characteristic being that she supports her "man" so much that she'll steadfastly make him a sandwich while he preps his crew for the battle to come.  I guess what's mostly depressing about MIDWAY on the performance front is that the makers here have assembled some truly good talent to take this film to a higher level, but the limp and prosaic writing really betrays them.  This is why most of the actors here look like they're giving a dry and half-hearted dress rehearsal instead of committed screen performances. 

But, does MIDWAY still manage to blow shit up well?  The short answer is a resounding yes.  I'll give full props to Emmerich as his ace VFX team for filling the widescreen canvas with some truly breathtaking aerial and naval warfare recreations that I consciously was aware was the product of computer effects, but I nevertheless was pretty amazed by the scale and impact here.  The early sequence showcasing the Pearl Harbor attack packs a sizeable gut punching wallop, and the later scenes knee deep in the Battle of Midway highlighting Best's men taking some extraordinarily dangerous dive bombing runs on Japanese freighters is strikingly convincing.  As a piece of visual effects eye candy, MIDWAY is an unqualified success, but the film could have been even that much more potent if it wasn't severely neutered by its PG-13 rating, which presents the battle carnage in an incredulously blood and gore free manner.  MIDWAY looks and sounds spectacular, but more in an escapist adventure film kind of manner as opposed to being a frightening visual reminder of the horrors of war.  

I'll give MIDWAY kudos for one other thing, in closing: It's at least trying to be a bit more progressive minded than the 1970s film in terms of giving viewers a fair amount of coverage of both American and Japanese leaders in their respective philosophies and strategies on the warfront.  That's decent in its own right, but the Japanese characters present in the narrative are disapprovingly granted just as little depth as their U.S. counterparts: both countries leader's are portrayed in broad and clichéd archetypal traits, and not much else.  In the end, I didn't hate MIDWAY as much I was expecting going in, and it certainly represents a minor return to some form for Emmerich, who has spent much of the last decade-plus making less than digestible blockbuster entertainments.  This version doesn't really break all that much new ground and tells its WWII fact based tale with conventional beats and troupes, but it's certainly an interesting and watchable historical companion film, of sorts, to Emmerich's own THE PATRIOT.  That, and it's not the big, bloated, and embarrassing schlockfest that was Michael Bay's PEARL HARBOR nearly twenty years ago.  The technology utilized to make MIDWAY is a quantum leap advancement from its 1976 antecedent, but, rather sadly, the writing here has not evolved all that much, which results in a film that's more bombastic than enthralling. 

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