World War II has provided ample material for films, mostly due to the extraordinary circumstances that clashed the global powers together. The atrocities give way to great narrative material for stories of heroics, tragedies, and survival. WWII films are so numerous that there are many blatant propaganda and/or commercial exploitations of the horrors of war (I’m looking at you Pearl Harbor (2001)). Given that the Pacific battle of Midway was going to be brought to screen by the blockbuster maestro Roland Emmerich (Independence Day (1996), The Day After Tomorrow (2004)), my expectations for his film were low.
Midway (2019) tracks the multi-pronged story of the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The film follows a diverse array of characters, from the intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), to the Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), and even admirals and commanders from the Japanese side (Etsushi Toyokawa, Tadanobu Asano). However, the majority of the film follows fighter pilots (Ed Skrein, Luke Evans) on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (no not the Star Trek one).
I was struck with how carefully researched and procedural the film could be at points; most unlike the popcorn extravaganzas that Emmerich has us accustomed to. The film is very careful at laying out facts and trying to be understanding for both sides of the conflict. Instead of some gratuitous battles and violence (like we saw Emmerich do in The Patriot (2000)), there is a great respect towards the lives being lost as well as a thorough understanding of battle tactics. Emmerich is able to bring his expertise at staging action and of utilizing sound and visual effects to immerse and stun a viewer to a measurable effect.
The method of having a diverse array of characters to tell a war story is an effective one, to show the vastness and reach of such conflict; it has been used to great effect in films such as Full Metal Jacket (1987), The Thin Red Line (1998) and most recently in Dunkirk (2017). However, all those films grab on to a specific character that can be their lead-in and guide through the events; in Midway that was Ed Skrein’s pilot Dick Best. However, herein lies one of the weak links of the film, Skrein seems to believe that he is in a cheesy action flick similar to Emmerich’s films from the past: he plays his cocky pilot too exaggeratedly and ends up becoming a caricature in contrast with the more careful performances around him. The British Skrein also dons a very unconvincing American accent that constantly removes the audience from his scenes. The choice of a wide cast also allows the likes of singer Nick Jonas to sport a role in the film, his casting of which likened comparisons to the surprisingly solid performance from like-singer Harry Styles in Dunkirk. However, Jonas is incapable of bringing a believable portrayal on screen, and his role ends up looking like an embarrassing cameo – forced by studio execs looking for some marketing viability. Jonas seems to always be on the verge of laughing in each shot, and seems to be to self-conscious to ever inhabit his heroic real-life figure.
There also is an antiquated air around this film, especially in regard to portraying the heroisms of America in war, as well as the complete ignorance and misuse of women on screen. Most WWII films seem incapable of giving a role different from the “supporting wife” to women; and while this was mostly accepted in the past, recent societal trends demand a bit more of an effort. Mandy Moore is the only significant female character on screen, and the great actress is relegated to looking worried in her limited screen time. There is also the subtle shadow of the nuclear bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Emmerich is commendable enough for showing characters and justifications for battle on both sides of the war, and yet a particular sequence of a massacre of Chinese by the Japanese army seems to be an underlying justification for the horrors that Enola Gay dropped on entirely civilian cities. In WWII nearly 20 million Chinese (both army and civilian) were massacred by Japanese forces, but a comparison of numbers in order to justify even more horrors is completely unwarranted. One could go on about the necessities of the nuclear bombs that were dropped, but it begins to tarry from Midway and this review. The bottom line of such a point, is that while Emmerich was bold and righteous in placing the often overlooked massacre of the Chinese on screen, its intention seems tainted when it seems to visually purify the American cause.
In the end, Midway was a surprise from Emmerich. It was much more serious and loyal to research and truth than I was expecting, the battle sequences are staged in satisfying and comprehensive ways, and a sprawling cast is able to give proper dimensions and stakes of the conflict. However, the film isn’t without its missteps, the cinematically largest of which is a misguided Skrein in the central role, but the challenges of pulling off a war film are infinite; and for the result that Emmerich has delivered, Midway is commendable.