Recreating the aura of the historic Battle of Midway isn’t an easy task.
In the early 1940s, after the tragic Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had zapped America’s spirit, Midway became a turning point in World War II. And though this screen adaptation of that event has a very commercial and slick feel, credit it for creating a bygone era, capturing a pivotal battle and leaving a lasting impression.
Director Roland Emmerich is known for his popular action films, which emphasize sound (sound editing for The Day After garnered an Oscar nomination) and fury (Independence Day won Best Effects and Best Visual Effects Oscars). Before you enter the theater, you know this project will be loud and have CGI magic tricks. That’s how he rolls. What you don’t expect is that a script by Wes Tooke (TV’s Colony and Jean-Claude Van Johnson), which is his first feature film screenplay, would give the characters, dialogue and narrative just enough depth to help this project complete its mission to entertain, thrill and inform.
Costumes (Mario Davignon), sets (Carolyn ‘Cal’ Loucks), production design (Kirk M Petruccelli) and art direction (Isabelle Guay) bring you back to early June 1942. The dialogue uses words, phrases and inflections that might not accurately reflect the way people talked back then, but it certainly mimics speech patterns in ‘40s war films (Flying Tigers) and director John Ford’s Battle of Midway (1942) documentary (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MW8tQ_6dqS8), which was shot partially during the actual historic skirmish.
Three well-paced (editor Adam Wolfe, White House Down) storylines are braided into one engaging narrative: The USS Enterprise (CV-6), an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific, is in Pearl Harbour and has survived the sneak attack on December 7, 1941. The pilots who man its planes are looking for revenge, as their carrier edges closer to Japan. Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Best (Ed Skrein, Deadpool) is the most rambunctious of the bunch. Lieutenant Clarence Earle Dickinson (Luke Kleintank, Crown Vic) is almost as gung-ho. Lt. Commander Wade McClusky (Luke Evans, Beauty and the Beast) is far more regimented.
Besides bombs, torpedoes and artillery, the strongest weapon in the war is the power the intelligence community gives the commanders as they contemplate battle strategy. Naval Intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson, TV’s Fargo) heads a unit that includes the indispensable codebreaker Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown), and Layton’s job is to convince Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) to heed his intelligence findings.
In Japan, fresh off the success of an attack that will live in infamy, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) and officers Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano), Tomeo Kaku (Nobuya Shimamoto) and Chūichi Nagumo (Jun Kunimura) plot more carnage.
The players, based on historic figures, are assembled. Their war games include placement of ships, planes in the sky, submarines under water and outguessing their adversaries’ next move. This is when intrigue begins and doesn’t let up for nearly 138 minutes. Not every strong-minded soldier comes back from his tour of duty. Not every commander goes unscathed. In between the steady doses of action (bombardment, air fights, sinking ships) there are brief glimpses of family life and indecision. Just enough to let you know that the men in battle have someone to come home to and some young recruits are reluctant to fight. Best: “Don’t be the man who lets down the squadron when the Japanese attack.”
Compared to previous works, Emmerich has dialed down on his proclivity for over-the-top action scenes. Just enough to make the main characters’ dilemmas believable. Death is around the corner. No need to throw viewers off that scent. Yes there are explosions and pilots dramatically navigate their planes out of clouds of smoke and debris. But these moments do not overshadow the storytelling. Yes, sometimes a ship in the distance or soldiers running on the deck of a carrier are obvious CGI tricks. But none of these tell-tale moments are laughable.
Skrein carries half of the film. As a rebel pilot who breaks the rules, something about his performance is steadfastly compelling. In a less showy role, Wilson as Layton makes his character the perfect savior. The large cast of characters is filled out with actors playing other officers and enlisted men, and all do fine: Dennis Quaid, Alexander Ludwig, Darren Criss, Nick Jonas (yes that Jonas) and Aaron Eckhart. Mandy Moore from TV’s This Is Us, portrays Best’s wife with a special zest. The depth and grace of the Japanese cast is formidable: Toyokawa, Kunimura and of course Asano.
To put Emmerich’s direction into perspective, Midway is not a slow-moving as Clint Eastwood’s stoic Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima. Not as visually stunning as Christopher Nolan’s gorgeously and magically crafted Dunkirk. He is not in their league, But as Emmerich makes a play for a more respectable type of action film—based on history—his effort has to be acknowledged. And, his direction is not as shameless as Michael Bay’s was in his spectacle Pearl Harbor.
Consider this: The characters on screen are based on real war heroes or villains. The battles, deaths, wins and losses are factual. The outcomes changed the course of WWII. Truth gives this film some weight. Conversations between the Japanese, where they lament that fact that they are dependent on American oil, a motivation for their war effort, bring up a topical subject.
Roland Emmerich’s latest work, though still a popcorn action film, has some girth. Not enough to smother war film fans in history. Just enough to keep them engaged. Just enough.