Midway movie review: Roland Emmerich adds CGI and pyrotechnics to a Wikipedia article on WWII battle

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World War II turns into, as Scorsese would have called it, a ‘theme-park ride’ in Midway. But, unlike the best theme park rides, it neither delivers visceral thrills nor gets your adrenaline pumping. At best, it’s a bumper car ride as the lives of numerous characters crash against one another in an overcrowded nightmare.

Midway is the new disaster from disaster auteur Roland Emmerich, and it brims with the same kind of testosterone-fuelled machismo and American jingoism of his previous efforts like Independence Day, The Patriot and White House Down. In a post-Apocalypse Now world, it’s hard not to think of any epic war drama as a recruitment commercial, much less a glossily mounted one like this.

The film is a CGI-heavy retelling of the War in the Pacific beginning with Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and culminating in the Battle of Midway in June 1942, as the undermanned US forces beat overwhelming odds to take control of the Midway Islands. It was the first decisive victory in a three-year campaign to win the war against Japan. But Midway falls way short of the sweeping testament to the triumph of the human spirit it strives to be.

Ed Skrein and Mandy Moore in Midway

It, however, doesn’t make a mockery of the war like Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, which turned a tragedy into an inconvenient interruption of a love triangle. Even though it feels like Emmerich is giving Pearl Harbor a 2012-like sequel, he still captures the human sacrifice of war in a more truthful manner.

Most of Midway plays out like a Wikipedia article on the battle. Though it has a problem of one too many characters and narrative threads, its chief focus is on the US Navy officers and pilots aboard the aircraft carriers in the Pacific. There’s no shortage of heroes like ace dive-bomber Dick Best (played unconvincingly by Ed Skrein), and naval radioman Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas in a surprisingly more convincing turn), who guns down an incoming Japanese kamikaze plane. The heroes behind the scenes include Naval Intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) and Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), who run the operations along with Vice Admiral Halsey (Dennis Quaid). 

Nick Jonas in Midway

A lot of the cast members look like Ken dolls of various skin tones, hair styles and jawline sizes. But one of the few positives in the film is it doesn’t turn the Japanese into cartoonish bad buys. It gives a fair amount of screen time to the Japanese top brass and their reasoning behind the battle of Midway. So, Etsushi Toyokawa, who plays strategist Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, gets a more compelling role than Harrelson and Quaid, who are left to contend with a God-awful wig and shingles respectively.

Though most of the characters in Midway are based on real people, they don’t seem real because screenwriter Wes Tooke never builds on the emotional stakes of the people being portrayed. This is evident even in the way he pays lip-service to the women left lurking in the background — as Mandy Moore’s character Anne exists primarily to make her husband sandwiches at night.

Woody Harrelson in Midway

The movie squanders its ensemble cast by making them spout heavy-handed dialogue (“You fly like you don’t care if we come home”), expositions (“Men like Dick Best are the reason we’re going to win this war), and the bleeding obvious (“If we lose, we lose the Pacific”). Even John Ford (Geoffrey Blake) is a minor character in the film and he is greeted with a “Gee, I’ve never met a real-life movie director before.”

The screenplay really detracts from the talent of its cast and its impressive production values. Emmerich takes us inside war rooms, submarines and warplanes to give us a hyper-realistic theme park experience of war. But for a war drama which emphasises spectacle over substance, Midway‘s visuals are strangely alienating. Though there are a few high-intensity air and sea combat sequences (like Aaron Eckhart’s Jimmy Doolittle leading a retaliatory raid on Tokyo and the climactic battle), the special effects can seem a little overdone and the use of green screen quite immoderate.  

Amidst all the CGI and pyrotechnics, Midway often forgets the human element to war. So, you don’t get to bond with any of its characters or care about their fates. It loosely compiles snapshots of the Battle of Midway without a resonant hook to sustain the audience’s attention for over two hours — and it settles instead for bittersweet truisms, and melodrama passing as patriotism.

(Images from Lionsgate)