One thing you can always count on from the films of director Roland Emmerich is scale. Sure, there will also likely be explosions and a giant cast, but the man never skimps on making every story epic, in movies like Stargate, Independence Day (and its ill-advised sequel), The Patriot, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and White House Down). Certainly, his latest, Midway, doesn’t skimp in terms of the immensity of it all. But with many large-scale films, what is sacrificed is intimacy and the more personal stories that often breathe life into movies about spaceships and battles and worldwide weather events. Midway is a better film that most Emmerich works because he hasn’t forgotten the human element—and cost—in war. He’s made a movie that honors both the grand designs at play during World War II’s Battle of Midway as well as the individuals on both sides of the fight.
Written by Wes Tooke, Midway begins with a quick but catastrophic re-creation of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the event which brought the United States fully into WWII. But more importantly, it left the U.S. Navy with very few functioning aircraft carriers and other naval fighting crafts that were necessary in fighting the Japanese in the Pacific theater. Those who survived the attack seem all the more determined to not put the rest of the fleet at risk, in particular Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), the intelligence officer who warned the Navy of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor days before it happened and was ignored.
Better known players at the time, like Layton, are fully represented in the film, including such familiar names as Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), Vice Admiral Halsey (Dennis Quaid), and Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart), but Emmerich also name checks a great number of real-life flyers who were instrumental in winning the Battle of Midway, including Lt. Richard “Dick” Best (Ed Skrein) and his closest friend Lt. Clarence Early Dickinson (Luke Kleintank), who are the primary fighter pilots the film focuses on. They are vastly different men: Best is an impulsive, emotionally driven soldier, while Dickinson is more thoughtful and collected. They balance each other out, and fighting side by side in battle, they are quite impressive.
The film also dives into the personal lives of some of its players. Best’s wife Anne (Mandy Moore) is essential to his success, and while she’s not exactly given a whole lot to do, she is brought to the forefront more than I’m used to seeing in most war movies. There are even petty squabbles that erupt between the soldiers, including Best and his commanding officer Wade McClusky (Luke Evans), who fight about strategies but still overcome and pull it together for the greater good. Naturally, there’s no way a film coming out over Veterans Day weekend about this turning-point battle was going to rick ruffling any feathers, but it does find moments to show that not everyone was in agreement every step of the way.
What follows is a fairly accurate account of the step-by-step process of preparing for the Battle of Midway, on both the larger and smaller scale, with Wilson as the primary voice of the brass and Skrein as the mouthpiece for the fighter pilots (look for brief appearances by the likes of Nick Jonas, Alexander Ludwig, and Darren Criss among the aerial fighters). The special effects and battle re-enactments are seamless and impressive, and Emmerich does an admirable job keeping the geography of every battle straight for the audience—he’s not always successful, but he gets it more often than not.
Another interesting element to Midway is how much time we spend learning about the Japanese side of the equation, and how its military miscalculated and underestimated the U.S. defenses at key points. The film is dedicated to both the American and Japanese soldiers who fought at Midway, and while the Japanese story isn’t covered as extensively, it’s still a useful addition to telling the complete tale. Midway is a somewhat flawed film, especially when it pushes the patriotism and heroism angles a bit too much, but it doesn’t always feel inappropriate. And if ever there was a battle that deserved to underscore a few of the brave, it’s this one. This is certainly one of Emmerich’s better efforts.
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