As much as I hate to shit on a filmmaker for wanting to do something unexpected or different, some filmmaker’s passion projects work out better than others. Roland Emmerich’s Midway is not one of the better ones, which is a shame since you can tell that a lot of good intentions went into making the film.
If you don’t know the World War II story (and haven’t seen the original 1976 movie Midway…or Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor) then you might have heard something about the Japanese bombing the Pearl Harbor naval base on December 7, 1941. It drew the United States into the war and specifically into a battle with Japan in the Pacific Ocean, despite being undermanned compared to the overwhelming Japanese fleet and airpower. The battle of Midway in June 1942 was a turning point that allowed the U.S. forces to move closer to Japan.
Much of the story revolves around Ed Skrein’s Lieutenant Richard Best, a naval pilot with an ongoing competition with Luke Evans’Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky. That’s set aside when Pearl Harbor is attacked, killing Best’s naval buddy Roy Pearce (Alexander Ludwig). After the attack, Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) is sent to run operations in the Pacific along with Dennis Quaid’s Vice Admiral Halsey with intel from Patrick Wilson’s Edwin Layton. Even though the American Navy is likely to be overpowered, they go to Midway ready to take on the Japanese fleet with a sense of bravado-fueled vengeance.
I don’t have the patience to fact-check the accuracy of Emmerich or screenwriter Wes Tooke’s research into telling this story, but for a movie like this to work at all, it needs to get two things right: pacing and tone. It doesn’t succeed in either case. For the most part, Midway is dull… very dull. Other than the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the actual Midway battle, the rest is bogged down by lots of exposition and strategy uttered mostly by actors growling through their teeth.
If Quaid’s appearance is ridiculous – Halsey’s Pacific tenure is cut short by a bad case of shingles – than Aaron Eckhart’s role in the movie is so superfluous, it could easily have been cut out entirely. Just to break up the abundance of white males that’s already overrun most of the fall movie season, Emmerich throws in Mandy Moore as Best’s wife, and yeah, she isn’t that great either.
The writing and acting are just bad all around, and since so much of the film relies on the weight of these performances, it’s a shame that so much of the film relies on the likes of Skrein, Nick Jonas and other young actors that just aren’t able to do anything to elevate the weak writing. Woody Harrelson, clearly the best actor amid the entire cast, is wearing such a ridiculous wig it’s almost impossible to take his character very seriously.
So much of the movie is visual FX and some of those FX look better than others. We’ve become inured to Emmerich using the highest level of FX to create some of the most outlandish scenes, and some of the battle scenes look great, even though it’s obvious there’s little actually happening on screen in terms of anything physical. No, these are scenes created mostly in a computer and when compared to some of the footage filmed by John Ford (who actually shows up as he films Battle of Midway in a nudge-nudge-wink-wink moment that feels inappropriate), it often feels off. Planes don’t fly like they normally would in those times, and they’re “filmed” from all sorts of angles.
Midway isn’t completely unwatchable, though. Surprisingly, it’s Emmerich’s Japanese cast that gives the movie the weight and gravitas it needs to even partially succeed. In most American war movies, the Japanese and Germans are superficial and frequently vilified, but that isn’t the case here. Midway clearly takes a cue from Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima in making the Japanese characters as important as the American ones. (Even citing these two movies in the same sentence causes me pain.) When we start seeing the other side, that’s also when the movie starts to get more interesting, but it’s impossible to complete forget how bad Midway is at its dullest.
I went into Midway really hoping to like it. I’m such a fan of other classic war movies based on America’s Pacific battle during WWII, and the Battle of Midway is such a great story about the real American heroes. Midway is so bad it makes Battleship – a film more like what we normally might expect from Emmerich – look good. That alone is a slap in the face to the brave actions of these men. In other words, Midway is one of those misguided passion projects that should have been left alone.