An old-fashioned World War II movie fitted out with all the combat action modern CGI can muster, Roland Emmerich’s “Midway” certainly outshines Jack Smight’s 1976 turgid patchwork epic on the game-changing 1942 naval battle in sheer energy and visual pizzazz, though it lacks the earlier film’s star wattage in casting.
Written by Wes Tooke, the picture is basically a primer—quite a historically accurate one, for the most part—about the beginning of American involvement in the war, not overlooking the leadership provided by the likes of Admirals Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) and Bull Halsey (Dennis Quaid), but concentrating on the heroics of other actual figures like pilots Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart), who led the punitive strike on Tokyo, and Dick Best (Ed Skrein) and Wade McClusky (Luke Evans), who were among those active in the assault on Japanese aircraft carriers at Midway, as well as others like aviation machinist Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas) and aviation radioman James Murray (Keean Johnson).
Special emphasis, however, is put on the intelligence officers who were instrumental in preparing the trap that the Japanese navy fell into at Midway: Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who had warned of a potential attack before Pearl Harbor and advised Nimitz on what might follow, and codebreaker Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown), who led the team that surveyed and decrypted the enemy messages that allowed Layton to forewarn the admiral about probable Japanese strategy.
These uniformly heroic naval types are surrounded by a vast array of other servicemen—this is a man’s movie. An occasional female is to be seen, of course, most notably Mandy Moore as Best’s wife Anne, a spunky type who always stands by her husband and keeps the home fires burning while he’s away, though he’s always overlooked for promotion because he doesn’t follow the rules. It’s definitely a minor role, however, though not quite as small as Rachael Perrell Fosket’s turn as Mrs. Layton.
To provide some sense of balance, the Japanese perspective is also included to some extent, beginning with a pre-war banquet conversation between Layton and Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa), who serves as a voice of reason in contrast to his country’s more militaristic leaders, and continuing through the battle at Midway itself, in which the levelheaded, and ultimately heroic Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano) serves as a counterpoint to the hidebound, inflexible commander Nagumo (Jun Kunimura).
Nor is China forgotten (one of the production partners is Shanghai-based, after all): a major subplot spends time showing how Doolittle was saved from capture by beleaguered nationalists, who risked their own lives by protecting him from the Japanese.
And just to show that Tooke and Emmerlich are aware of their cinematic heritage, they find room for a couple of scenes featuring iconic director John Ford (Geoffrey Blake) at work on his documentaries about the war in the Pacific, putting himself in harm’s way to get a good shot of Japanese planes en route to Midway.
Those who obsess over the technical details of the vintage planes and ships shown here will probably point out minor errors in their reconstruction, but overall one of the strongest elements of “Midway” is its devotion to period detail. Production and costume designers Kirk M. Petrucelli and Mario Davignon have done an expert job.
So too have the members of the effects team; though despite the best efforts of editor Adam Wolfe the actual battle sequences may not be as clear as they might be from a purely tactical perspective, they’re viscerally exciting in video-game terms.
The dramatic elements of the film, on the other hand, are at best pedestrian. The characterizations, even of the major figures, are sketchy, and the dialogue perfunctory, with lots of macho declamation (the scenes of Jonas’ Gaido are especially broad in that respect, though the last-act misgivings of Johnson’s Murray about flying on another death-defying mission provides a glimpse of the fear factor that must have been omnipresent). In these dialogue-driven sections of the picture, the widescreen images of Robby Baumgartner’s cinematography are lustrous but fairly prosaic.
A similar description can be offered of the acting, which often falls into the category of posing rather than performing. Skrein and Jonas are particular offenders in that respect, relying more on posturing and broad accents than delving into character (Moore, in her way, suffers from the same inclination to excess, as does Quaid). But even those who opt for restraint—Wilson, Evans, Eckhart, Toyokawa, Asano and (surprisingly) Harrelson—can’t bring much depth to their work.
So what we’re left with is a throwback to the wartime spectacles of the seventies, done up with all the visual pizzazz CGI can provide but keeping the human element at a regrettably rudimentary level. One can admire Emmerich’s fidelity to fact and his refusal to indulge in 1940s-style jingoism, and his film certainly celebrates what’s nowadays called the greatest generation in a fashion appropriate to Veterans’ Day (for which it’s being released). While a decent example of gung-ho popular history (and superior to Michael Bay’s “Pear Harbor”), however, its shallow characterizations keep it from becoming nuanced human drama.