One battle turned the tide of war.
After the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 thrusts the United States into World War II, the American ‘sleeping giant’ and the Japanese ‘rising sun’ battle for control of the Pacific Ocean. It all comes to a head at the crucial Battle of Midway in June 1942 — one of the most important naval battles in the history of water.
I am a sucker for a big ol’ historical epic packed full of exciting incident, tough decisions, period detail, and the ineffable sense the great wheels of Fate are turning. The thing about these kinds of things is that the characters seem to know that they’ve got their fingers on the scale of history, too — that’s why we get so many speeches about duty, sacrifice, honor, and the terrible cost of failure (or sometimes, for added nuance, success). I just love it; it stirs my inner Dad.
There’s a lot of that going on in Midway, a kind of spiritual sequel to Michael Bay’s much-derided 2001 epic Pearl Harbor and a Dad Movie to the bone. Midway comes to us courtesy of German director Roland Emmerich, who specializes in daft but generally enjoyable disaster movies, sci-fi actioners, and hybrids thereof: Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009), and so on. Over the course of his career, he’s dipped his toe into straighter historical drama with 2000’s Revolutionary War melodrama The Patriot and the Elizabethan intrigue of 2011’s Anonymous, although describing 2015’s Stonewall as ‘straighter’ gives one pause. In any case, he’s back at the history well for this one, and it’s a good match of artist and material; with its big scale pyrotechnics, square-jawed heroism, and sprawling cast of respectable but not-quite-A-list actors, Midway is much like Emmerich’s more fantastical efforts except that it’s, y’know, technically based on fact.
In truth, Midway’s not a bad primer on the Pacific Theatre of WWII, kicking off with a Tokyo-set preamble in 1937 where American Naval Attaché Edwin T. Layton (Patrick Wilson) has a conversation with Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) and twigs that, should Japanese oil resources be endangered, war between Japan and the U.S. might be inevitable. December 7th, 1941, proves that true, and the Pearl Harbor attack also provides motivation for legendary pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein) when his best mate is killed. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) is given command of the Pacific Fleet and begins calling the big shots on the strategic level, with Layton as his Intelligence Officer, trying to figure out when and where the next big scrap is going to be.
The title — and actual history — give it away, of course, but we take the time to go along on the retaliatory Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, with The Dark Knight’s Aaron Eckhart playing the insanely courageously James Doolittle, although the Battle of the Coral Sea gets short shrift. Once Layton’s boffins work some cryptographic magic the stage is set for the naval clash near Midway Atoll, and then it’s all over, bar the shouting (so much shouting), explosions, and acts of ridiculous valor, a surprising number of which pass the ‘Did this actually happen?’ test.
Seriously, what’s not to love? It’s a big, self-serious but self-aware period action drama with $100 million to throw at cast and spectacle, and you can see every penny up on screen. Yes, there’s a lot of CGI involved, and some of it doesn’t quite pass photorealistic muster, and yet Midway has more grit and heft to it than the usual Marvel standard of shock and awe, light and noise. There’s a cost to what’s going on here, and deaths and injuries land with a surprising weight — there are moments of sacrifice that pack more of a punch than Tony Stark’s grandstanding death in Avengers: Endgame (2019), if for no other reason that a) he’ll be back, let’s face it, and b) these guys, who were real, flesh and blood people, most certainly will not. The sheer gravity of history gives Midway surprising pathos.
More so, I found, than the other big, and much more critically lauded war flick doing the rounds at the moment, 1917, an über-serious slog through the mud that nonetheless lionizes Imperialism, colonialism, and self-sacrifice for murky political purpose. Midway at least makes a case for its war and spends time with the opposing side to let us get a handle on their experience (it’s not a 50/50 split, but it’s not lip service either). Yes, it’s melodramatic in a Douglas-Sirk-goes-to-the-front kind of way, but the technicolor histrionics our gum-chewing, high-flying, all-American heroes engage in is more palatable to me than Sam Mendes’ more insidious mythmaking. Midway seems to know it’s printing the legend in terms of tone while sticking fairly closely to the facts; 1917 flips the script, giving us a fictional narrative while disguising its stiff upper lip nationalism with a light dusting of War Is Hell, Old Son. Midway is a more honest work; 1917 is a technical exercise dressed up as a Serious Work of Art.
Ahem, well, yes, if you want to look at the deeper cultural issues in play, then that’s where my head’s at. But my heart is in watching a rather brilliant roster of B-players pull the chocks away and roar off the deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise in order to do battle in the sky. It’s a really wonderful cast: Dennis Quaid, Innerspace (1987), as Vice Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey, Tadanobu Asano, Mongol (2007), as Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, Luke Evans, Dracula Untold (2014), as pilot Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, Mandy Moore, A Walk to Remember (2002), as Best’s wife, Ann — we also get a Jonas Brother, Nick, in this case, as naval machinist Bruno Gaido. Even John Ford, the famed director who was on Midway to shoot documentary footage, gets a cameo appearance, played by character actor Geoffrey Blake — a moment that had me cackling with joy.
Immediately after I saw Midway, I quipped that it was the Daddest Dad movie that ever Dadded, but that’s a very fond bit of ribbing — this is the sort of film destined to be a Sunday afternoon T.V. matinee mainstay. It almost feels like it fell through a time warp, à la the aircraft carrier in The Final Countdown (1980) — an artifact from a different period and a different kind of filmmaking. In an age of rampant nostalgia, this is nostalgia done right — a film that manages to acknowledge the cost of war, the spectacle of battle, the appeal of heroism, and the joy of a good story well told in one packed-to-the-brim package.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson