War movies are tricky. War movies that attempt to cover major historical events with something approaching accuracy are even more so. You see, in a genre as heavily saturated with movies as this one, there’s plenty of works to compare any given movie to, and the fact is that failing to be original in your approach, or even worse, being both unoriginal and worse than the other movies that have tried to do what you are doing can be a death sentence. Many a war movie has been found DOA on the very simple grounds that they did something that had already been done, and did it worse in the process. That’s what makes Roland Emmerich’s newest feature Midway tricky.
What do I mean by that? Well quite simply, in the best way I can put it, Midway is 2/3rds of a really good war movie and 1/3rd of a terrible one. It is somewhat unfortunate therefore, that the terrible third is the entire first third of the movie. In its attempt to paint a complete picture and give the viewer full historical context for The Battle of Midway, Emmerich chooses to start at the very beginning of America’s involvement in WWII, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and quite frankly the forty minutes that follow are the second worst thing to ever happen to Pearl Harbor. The cinematography vacillates between being too darkly lit during interior scenes and too harshly lit during exterior shots, rendering it incredibly difficult at times to see anything. Combine this with some distracting accent work by some of the leads, which honestly doesn’t get better, and a few castings that hedged a bit towards the “stunt” end of the spectrum, and to be perfectly honest, Midway is on the verge of stalling out, crashing, and burning before we’ve even finished the first act. And then, something fascinating happens, the engine fires back up, the film rights itself, and it just suddenly starts working.
With Pearl Harbor in the rearview mirror the film begins to focus in on a few different threads: the story of the people on the ground, the military leaders planning the war, and the intelligence officers fighting to figure out the next fronts on which the war will be fought. While there’s not much terribly remarkable about this section, it at least rises to a level of competence that the first act lacked before finally evolving into something outright entertaining in the last portion of the second act. Once we reach the US’s first efforts at hitting back, the raid on the Marshall Islands, and Jimmy Doolittle’s raid (Doolittle being portrayed well by Aaron Eckhart in a limited role), we actually cross over into a thoroughly engaging film.
As badly shot and uninspired as the film’s rendition of the attack on Pearl Harbor may, the remainder of the action sequences in the film are in fact quite impressive. The look of the film in the back half is quite honestly something to be praised. While heavily reliant on CGI for obvious reasons, Emmerich manages to land on a visual pallette for the many naval and aerial combat sequences that is visceral and deeply engaging. By relying heavily on a shot reverse shot technique that alternates between the faces of the pilot and their POV, Emmerich manages to place us in the planes along with them, making the dive bombing runs all the more thrilling, and the moments where smoke and flack fill the screen almost unnerving. Perhaps his most inspired decision during the actual battle of Midway itself is to cut between chaos of battle and the quiet suffocating tension of the war rooms, as the commanding officers wait on pins and needles for any indicators as to how the battle might be going. While one would worry that the contradictions between these two settings might be too jarring for the viewer, they actually heighten the tension as they highlight how isolating combat could become in this time long before satellite communication and video feeds revolutionized the ways in which commanding officers and the people in the thick of the fight could relay information back and forth to each other. This tension, paired with the visual splendor of the battle itself, results in one of the more memorable cinematic battle sequences of the last few years.
As far as performances go, there’s quite frankly not much to write home about. Nobody in the film is exactly remarkable, and while there are several capable performances, they rarely rise beyond just that. Combine that with some rather distracting accent work by Ed Skrein and Luke Kleintank and there’s just not much in this department that is going to stick with an audience for long after they leave the theater. Harrelson does a decent job as Admiral Nimitz and Patrick Wilson has his moments as Edwin Layton, but if I was making an acting reel for any of the performers, I don’t think their work in this film would make the cut. Oh, and Nick Jonas is in here, but he doesn’t really do much to push you past your initial reaction of “hey, that’s Nick Jonas.” All in all, I wouldn’t say that the performances are a mark against the film, they just don’t play a huge role in elevating it.
One thing worth noting in discussing this film is the level of respect and care it shows for the subject matter. In a film in which there is a noticeable ethnic difference between the two sides in a conflict, there is a defined risk of that difference being exaggerated and for the portrayals of the “bad guys” to devolve into racial caricature. Midway avoids that entirely. It strives to treat soldiers on both sides of the conflict with respect and dignity, while also not shying away from the very real war crimes committed by Japan in the early days of the war. The fact that it chooses to make a statement on these matters but also chooses not to devolve into mustache twirling villainy says a lot about Emmerich’s approach to this film. Choosing to depict historical figures like Isaroku Yamamoto with dignity, respect, and a dedication to depicting them in a manner that is in line with the historical record allows the film to evolve beyond propaganda and into something else altogether. By looking at the American and Japanese soldiers as people, we are able to more clearly see the horror and waste of war. It’s a level of sensitivity and nuance that I didn’t expect from Emmerich, and I was pleasantly surprised.
All in all, I’m not entirely sure where I stand on Midway. I think if you’re an adherent to the genre, you should probably make time for it, and I would say there’s enough in it for general audiences to probably vibe with, but I’d hesitate to label it a must see for anyone that isn’t a war film junkie. Still, there’s enough to like that by the end of the film I found myself walking away happy to have my initial misgivings proven wrong. I’d love it if the first act was better, but in the end I’d say there’s more good to be had than bad, and that it’s a more than serviceable option if you are looking for something to see this Veterans Day Weekend.