There’s a scene early in Midway, the latest misfire from director Roland Emmerich, in which we watch terrified sailors aboard the USS Arizona flee from the flames as the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Everything in the scene–right down to the flames themselves, which seem to hover in front of the men–is so transparently fake, so obviously computer generated, that there is absolutely no sense of the horror, shock, or gravity that a recreation of one of the darkest days in U.S. history should summon up.
Even though his movies are live-action cartoons at best, Emmerich is usually on surer ground when he’s doing alien invasions (Independence Day) or the end of the world (2012). Those kind of scenarios allow for a certain amount of unreality in the vast vistas of destruction that this filmmaker is notorious for, and also give a wide berth for the one-dimensional characters he drops inside them. When he’s dealing with real-life people and events–in this case, the decisive battle in the Pacific theater that turned the tide of World War II–he simply doesn’t have the resources to elevate the material above his usual fare.
That’s a deadly mistake. Midway (which shares its title with a mostly forgotten 1976 movie based on the same events, the second of three films to employ the “Sensurround” theater-shaking effect) wants desperately to be an old-fashioned war film, and it does wear its earnestness on its sleeve to some degree. It also takes the provocative and thoughtful step of showing the Japanese side of events too, much in the way that Clint Eastwood did with the brilliant Letters from Iwo Jima. An opening meeting between U.S. intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) and Japanese admiral Yamamoto (Toyokawa Etsushi), in which they rue the possibility of war between their two countries some four years before it happens, strikes a mournful tone that the movie immediately abandons.
Instead so much of the picture consists of clenched-jaw B-list actors growling exposition at each other and looking at charts and telegrams that extreme tedium quickly sets in. Dennis Quaid is frankly ridiculous as the gravelly Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, while Wilson gives some nuance to Layton even though he’s constantly spouting plot points. Most of the film centers on hotshot pilot Dick Best, who as played by Ed Skrein (Deadpool) seems more suited for a street fight than leading a crucial air attack. Best was a real person who fought successfully and courageously at Midway, from what we can ascertain, but Skrein is not a leading man (and Mandy Moore as his wife is indistinguishable from the other “worried wives” that make up the total female component of the cast).
Only Woody Harrelson provides some of the necessary stability and weight as the legendary Admiral Chester Nimitz, but he’s sheathed in a distracting wig and not given enough to work with to make Nimitz truly come to life. The rest–the airmen, the sailors, the carrier crews–were also real, unfathomably brave people, some of whom died at Midway or other battles, but they have as much resonance as the more forgivable comic book caricatures played by Will Smith and Judd Hirsch in Independence Day.
By the time we get to the Battle of Midway, Emmerich has done little to build tension or suspense and even breaks up the climactic conflict into smaller, confusing parts. But that doesn’t even matter too much, because aside from a few white-knuckle POV shots from the cockpit, all the CG planes and explosions render this historic confrontation into something with all the emotional and physical power of a video game. That, combined with the Wikipedia-style screenplay by Wes Tooke (at one point Aaron Eckhart shows up as pilot James Doolittle to stage his famous raid on Tokyo and then disappear completely for the rest of the film), makes this seem more like a direct-to-video knockoff of an actual Hollywood war film than the real thing itself.
Emmerich’s last passion project about real-life events–the almost unwatchable Stonewall (2015)–was equally clumsy and dull, but you would think that staging incredible aerial battles might fall a little more into his wheelhouse than a drama that took place in the streets of New York’s Greenwich Village. No such luck, however: at a time when Christopher Nolan can make you feel like you are truly there in Dunkirk there’s no excuse for a war movie as superficial and phony-looking as Midway. Emmerich should go back to monsters, spaceships, and tidal waves–actual history is clearly not on his side in more ways than one.
Midway is out in theaters this Friday (Nov. 8).