Midway (2019)

In its depiction of the decisive World War II battle for which it’s named, Roland Emmerich’s Midway does its fair share of blowing something and going home. Dealer’s choice on what it botches: Emmerich’s general track record of sure-handed directorial command over cheeseball blockbusters with copious characters; the efforts from emeritus members of his repertory like Woody Harrelson and Dennis Quaid; honoring American servicemen with much beyond hosannahs and hokum; and a hilariously ill-timed hope for international dollars.

Midway chronicles the events leading to a June 1942 clash between American and Japanese forces near the Midway Islands, as well as the battle itself. The Battle of Midway represented both a turning point for the United States’ campaign in the Pacific Ocean and decisive retaliation against Japan for its attack on Pearl Harbor a half-year earlier, which pushed our then-neutral nation into WWII combat. And yet … the film concludes with a dedication to U.S. and Japanese forces who served at Midway, with some added bunk about the sea knowing its own or some such noxious nautical nonsense.

It’s a bit like dedicating your report of armed robbery to the person who shoved a gun in your face. But Midway has a reason for holding out its hat to the nation it has just spent 138 minutes demonizing: That $100 million budget (before marketing) ain’t gonna recoup itself. This is easily the most wrongheaded onscreen text of its ilk since Rambo III praised Afghanistan’s brave Mujahideen rebels back in 1988. But at least that film had the luxury of aging poorly; as Midway shows its mind is on its money, it immediately withers. Not that the nine-figure price tag bought much beyond a plethora of plasticine explosions slapped together in post-production and a cabal of clearly computer-generated bodies to roam the decks of aircraft carriers. 

The real-life humans aren’t any more convincing. If there’s a lead in Midway, it’s Ed Skrein (Deadpool) as Lt. Dick Best, a U.S. Navy dive bomber who provided pivotal strikes against Japanese aircraft carriers at Midway. Skrein is a Brit whose idea of American patois stops at a pathological avoidance of the letter “R.” He talks like a tenor-ranged Vin Diesel with a box of thick chalk in his mouth and carries himself with a profoundly annoying combination of Kenickie and the Fonz. Although Skrein is just plain unpleasant to listen to in Midway, at least Best’s heroic exploits toward the end of the battle represent the fleeting moments of true, sustained tension that is Emmerich’s stock-in-trade.

Wes Tooke’s screenplay ping-pongs between the actions of intelligence gatherers and gallant infantry, with the second bill going to Patrick Wilson as Lt. Commander Edwin T. Layton. After Layton’s intel on Pearl Harbor went unheeded, he became a close colleague of Admiral Chester Nimitz (Harrelson), tabbed as the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s new commander-in-chief.

“There’s the man who tried to warn us,” shouts Layton’s former superior as Pearl Harbor falls around them. Midway has an odd way of asking its actors to spell out relationships and roles like expository cyborgs. The Emmerich of old certainly could have included those scenes of deliberation and discussion between Layton and his doubting superiors, much as he did Quaid’s pleas to climate-change skeptics in The Day After Tomorrow. But after back-to-back big-budget disappointments like White House Down and Independence Day: Resurgence, Emmerich and his multinational money men are far too eager to bring on wanton death and destruction.

In this movie, Quaid plays Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey. As Midway would tell it, Halsey saluted a heroic Jonas Brother (Nick, playing an Aviation Machinist’s Mate) and then reluctantly peaced out with shingles. As the Japanese’s chief naval strategist, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Etsushi Toyokawa embodies the close-chested calm of that nation’s military culture. Midway also ransacks the far-superior what-if postwar TV series The Man in the High Castle for a couple of roles — casting Luke Kleintank as Lt. Clarence Dickinson, one of Best’s buddies from Annapolis, and Brennan Brown as Commander Joseph Rochefort, an eccentric codebreaker whose erratic methods proved indispensable to anticipating Japanese movements.

Aaron Eckhart earns some of the decade’s shrewdest fourth billing — higher than he was even in The Dark Knight — as James Doolittle, the pilot who led America’s early retaliatory bombing of Tokyo. There’s a natural springboard from which Midway could play up the inherent heartlessness of war — and maybe earn something real in that dual dedication — as Doolittle and his men bail out in China and enlist everyday citizens to help them escape back to safety. It’s the most indirect reference to an era of Japan’s devastating savagery to China. But Midway forgets about all of those characters entirely for an hour-plus, circling back only in a perfunctory what-happened-next epilogue — and even then closing that chapter on a dark note it most deservedly doesn’t earn.

Cheap-spectacle utility man Luke Evans turns up as Wade McClusky, an aviator whose friendly rivalry with Best eventually softens into thick-of-war respect. The women are all nightclub singers or harried housewives, and only Mandy Moore as Anne Best, Dick’s spouse, gets to kvetch with more than a few syllables at a time. The sole surprise among any of Midway‘s many characters? An appearance from filmmaking legend John Ford (Geoffrey Blake), who arrives to document the battle at Midway and doesn’t let a little bit of shrapnel get in the way of a shot. These moments with Ford echo the esoteric oddities Emmerich’s success once afforded him as a masterful maestro of the manic, but they easily total under a minute of screen time.

On its face, Midway seems to ape the naked nationalism and proud simplicity of China’s Wolf Warrior franchise, only with a deeper and clumsier pretense to seriousness and the gall to drag on for a full reel longer than either of those films. But lumping Midway in with other nations’ jingoistic entertainment insults the inherent confidence and conviction behind propaganda, however mighty and just the moral outrage it might provoke. Instead, Midway finds itself stuck squarely in the dollar theatre of war.


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An award-winning film critic and features reporter, Nick has professionally written or gabbed about movies for Illinois newspapers, national syndicates, Playboy, The Art Immortal, The Film Yap and Midwest radio stations. He once drummed in a Billy Joel cover band known as Silly Joel and freely presents his Letterboxd page to engage and mock if you wish: https://letterboxd.com/ragekage79/


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