Midway (2019)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/07/19 14:17:11

"12 O’Clock Meh"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Whether or not you will like “Midway,” the latest cinematic depiction of the famous World War II naval battle that helped turn things around for the United States after suffering a disastrous sneak attack at Pearl Harbor at the hands of the Japanese, will depend to a large extent on your tolerance for WWII movies in general. When I say this, I am not referring to the serious-minded and weighty epics of recent years such as “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Thin Red Line,” “Flags of our Fathers” and the like. I am talking more about the less elevated war films offering simple and uncomplicated narratives, familiar characters and plenty of action to compensate for the lack of nuance—the kind of meat-and-potatoes war films that my dad used to watch religiously, no matter how shallow or simple-minded they might have been. My guess is that Dad probably would have liked this one on some basic fundamental level—it more or less checks off all the boxes that he would have been interested in—but anyone looking for anything even slightly deeper will probably find it to be an aggressively bland example of paint-by-numbers storytelling that is reasonably well-meaning but ultimately too derivative and one-note to inspire much in the way of enthusiasm from all but the most devoted and undiscerning war movie buffs..

The film follows a number of characters between the attack on Pearl Harbor that opens the story and the three-day naval battle in the Pacific about six months later between badly outmanned and demoralized American forces and the technically superior Japanese fleet. Lt. Dick Best (Ed Skrein) is a brash flyboy who is forced to toughen up when he is put in charge of a group of flyers in anticipation of the big battle while his wife (Mandy Moore) worries about him back at home. Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) is a former Naval attache in Japan who became an intelligence officer and was unable to convince his superiors about the impending attack on Pearl Harbor—now that he and his men have cracked enough radio messages to suggest another potential attack, he once again has to convince his superiors that he is right and the only chance to stop Japan is to lay a trap for them at Midway. Charles Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) is the fleet admiral in charge who has to decide whether to gamble the seriously depleted American naval resources on Layton’s findings. Vice-Admiral William Halsey (Dennis Quaid) is prepared to lead his men into battle until he is brought down by a case of shingles. Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) prefaces the battle at Midway with a symbolic air raid on Japan than results in him crash-landing and being rescued by the Chinese. Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas) pulls double-duty—as a fighter pilot, he is given a chance to shine when the chip are down and as a Jonas brother, he potentially attracts an audience demographic that would ordinarily have no interest in this particular film. Hell, even legendary filmmaker John Ford (Geoffrey Blake) turns up in the Pacific with his cameras to shoot battle footage for the government.

There are plenty of other subplots and characters (played by the likes of Luke Evans, Alexander Ludwig and Darren Criss, to name a few) but as the film bounces around between them, none of them really stand out from the pack. Emmerich, who, in addition to making empty-headed action spectacles like “Independence Day,” “2012” and “White House Down,” has been carving out a side career making equally empty-headed historical dramas like “Anonymous” and “Stonewall,” has reportedly been trying to make this film for years but you never get any real sense of what it was about the subject that compelled him so much. The screenplay by Wes Tooke lurches from incident to incident and contains too much ultimately extraneous material (the entire segment involving the Doolittle raid and his rescue by the Chinese teens to have been jammed in to appease the Chinese entities that helped fund the project) and far too little in the way of nuance. (With the exception of its reasonably fair-minded portrayal of the Japanese, this film could have almost been produced 60-odd years ago with nary a change.) The characters may come from real life but they still feel like characters rather than actual people—Skrein’s broad Brooklyn attitude and patois is especially distracting—and the actors can’t really find a way of doing much with them. (At the risk of sounding churlish, I would simply state that while Woody Harrelson is an excellent actor capable of a wider range of performances than he is usually given credit for, he has to be one of the least convincing admirals in war movie history.)Even the battle scenes—the presumed reason that the film exists in the first place—are not especially thrilling, mostly due to CGI effects that unfortunately skew more towards video game-style cartoonishness than gritty reality and a weird and ultimately reluctance to show any blood being spilled amidst the carnage.

To be fair, this “MIdway” is better than the 1976 version of the story bearing the same name that unsuccessfully tried to blend a few big names (Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum) with a cut-rate TV movie-style aesthetic (which included using old documentary footage to help depict the battle, casting Erik Estrada as “Chili Bean” Ramos and redubbing the great Toshiro Mifune with the voice of Boris Badenov himself, Paul Frees) and the redoubtable technical miracle that was Sensurround. It is also better than most Roland Emmerich joints of late—it never shows complete contempt for the audience in the way that the misbegotten “Independence Day” sequel did. In the end, “Midway” is just a slightly-below-average war movie that offers no surprises or any real reason for existing, the kind of movie that is easy enough to watch but which leaves you with nothing to take from it once it is all said and done. If that is all that you want from a movie like this, you may indeed enjoy it in the way that the old man might have. If you are looking for something a little more substantial, however, you may simply be out of luck.

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