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Midway (2019)

DIRECTOR: Roland Emmerich

CAST: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Luke Evans, Mandy Moore, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Darren Criss, Tadanobu Asano, Etsushi Toyokawa

REVIEW:

One goes into “a film by Roland Emmerich” with tempered expectations. I wasn’t expecting the next great war epic, but I had—I thought—reasonable expectations of something along the lines of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor; some big-scale war action intermixed with corny human drama. Alas, even for those modest expectations, Midway fails to deliver, once again begging the question of why such a hack as Emmerich continues to have his relentless mediocrity rewarded with gigs directing big-budget disaster/war movies. In fact, while I’m no Michael Bay fan, one could say that at least Bay knows he makes big, dumb action flicks where lots of stuff blows up real good. Emmerich occasionally displays pretensions of helming historical epics, and here (as usual) his reach exceeds his grasp.

For a movie titled Midway, we take our sweet time getting to the June 1942 Battle of Midway, considered the most important naval battle of WWII and a turning point in the war in the Pacific, starting with a prologue in 1937 and skimming through the attack on Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo, and a bombing raid on the Japanese-occupied Marshall Islands before finally getting to Midway. Along the way, we meet our poorly-developed and excessively sprawling ensemble of heroes, all of whom are based on real people who hopefully weren’t as cliched and one-dimensional as they come across here, including a “brilliant intelligence officer whom no one listens to until it’s too late”, Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who makes stunningly accurate pronouncements to his superiors including Admirals Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) and “Bull” Halsey (Dennis Quaid), and a cocky flyboy with a name you can’t make up, Dick Best (Ed Skrein), who’s itching for revenge for Pearl Harbor. He’ll get his chance when the Japanese Imperial fleet under the Pearl Harbor attack’s mastermind Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) sails on Midway, hoping to finish what it started at Pearl Harbor and smash what’s left of the American fleet in open battle.

One of the biggest problems with Midway is a hallmark of Roland Emmerich movies; a sprawling ensemble of one-dimensional poorly-developed characters where we rotate among them too rapid-fire to build up any attachment to anyone. There are some perfunctory attempts at character-building for Best, but he remains a standard-issue “cocky flyboy learning how to be a real leader” (Ed Skrein’s one-note performance doesn’t help), and everyone else is a crowd of bland avatars. Edwin Layton gets a semblance of character, but everyone else makes walk-on roles that don’t make much impression, from Admirals Nimitz and Halsey, to Best’s blandly supportive wife (Mandy Moore), to other peripheral roles like a plucky gunner (Nick Jonas), or a wingman who fears he doesn’t have what it takes (Keean Johnson), or Best’s best friend (Luke Kleintank), commanding officer Wade McCluskey (Luke Evans), or rival squadron commander Eugene Lindsey (Darren Criss), all of whom remain one-note non-entities. A minor subplot following Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) trying to make it back through China after crashing his plane following his bombing raid on Tokyo feels completely superfluous and there’s no particular reason for Doolittle to even be in this movie, given he had nothing to do with the Battle of Midway. Midway at least tries to give a little more even-handed and balanced overview of the battle, cutting back-and-forth between American and Japanese strategizing sessions, and while it features a couple scenes acknowledging the brutality of the Japanese military, a couple Japanese characters also get somewhat sympathetic moments and the movie ends by dedicating itself to both the American and Japanese participants in the battle (actually, partly because they tend to be more no-nonsense, a couple of the Japanese scenes are actually more memorable than the American ones).

Like Pearl Harbor, Midway serves up lots of bombing raids and dogfights and stuff blowing up real good, but also like Pearl Harbor (more so, in fact), it’s hampered by excessive CGI, especially when some of it seems surprisingly unconvincing and lacking in verisimilitude for a big-budget war picture. Additionally, while it spends plenty of time sketching out the backstory and lead-up to the battle, its actual portrait of the battle is a bit hazy and confused; the 1988 television miniseries War and Remembrance, which dedicated one episode to centering on the Battle of Midway, actually did a better job giving a comprehensive overview of the engagement than Midway does. Oddly, Admiral Raymond Spruance (Jake Weber), often regarded by military historians as the hero of Midway, has a minor side role. The movie wraps itself up in anti-climactic fashion; when the closing plaques relating what became of the people we’ve just seen portrayed start rolling, there’s a ho-hum sense of “that’s it”?

The cast is sprinkled with recognizable names and faces, but there’s no standout performances (or characters), and most of the acting is adequate at best. The closest we have to a lead is one of the lesser-known cast members, Ed Skrein, who doesn’t make for an especially likable or appealing leading man; there’s an abrasive cockiness to him that never completely dissipates, and he’s not particularly effective at conveying vulnerability or sincerity even when the movie tries to humanize him (maybe Skrein is a better fit for villains like Deadpool‘s Francis). Of the others, only Patrick Wilson makes a reasonable effort at fashioning some small scrap of character. Dennis Quaid is trying too hard to act grizzled and hard-ass, chewing scenery (badly) as the crusty “Bull” Halsey, while Woody Harrelson, wearing a white-haired wig, phones it in as Chester Nimitz. Aaron Eckhart doesn’t get much screentime and seems so superfluous that one wonders why he’s even in this movie. Supporting players like Luke Evans, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, and Darren Criss are uniform in their blandness. Of the Japanese actors onhand, the only one who might be recognizable to some American viewers is Tadanobu Asano (who played Hogun in all three Thor installments), who maintains his dignity as Admiral Yamaguchi and in fact gets one of the few memorable moments in the movie.

In a way, Midway recalls something like 1969’s The Battle of Britain, sporting some decent war action and dogfights but little character development and an excessive ensemble that precludes us from strong identification with anyone. WWII aficianados may still find things to appreciate for a portrayal of a battle which hasn’t gotten a lot of Hollywood attention, but even going in with modest expectations, Midway is underwhelming. The subject matter onhand deserves a stronger film treatment than this.

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