The Director of Independence Day takes on World War II.
DIRECTED BY: ROLAND EMMERICH/2019
No matter whether this film is a success or (pardon the pun) “bombs”, the one giant glaring success that can be said of this film is that it isn’t Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. Director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Patriot) uses the glossy effect-driven style he is known for to tell a mostly successful re-telling of America’s victory at the battle of Midway during World War II in the aptly titled new film, Midway.
The film opens with U.S. Intelligence Officer Edwin T. Layton (Patrick Wilson-The Conjuring, Aquaman) speaking to Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) in Tokyo. Admiral Isoroku laments what could bring Japan to the brink of war with the United States, which the perceptive Layton holds on to later when he is stationed in Pearl Harbor prior to its attack. Quickly we are thrust into the attack on Pearl Harbor, which Wilson’s Layton says is “the greatest intelligence failure in American history”. It is out of this failure that newly appointed Commander-in-Chief, United States Pacific Fleet Chester W. Nimitz (Woody Harrelson-Zombieland: Double Tap, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri), turns to Layton to try to find a way to take a battered fleet and turn the tide of the war.
While Midway spends a good amount of time giving the audience a look at the strategy that went into the climatic battle that will take place at Midway, it also follows the story of several Navy men who have lost friends and brothers in arms at Pearl (Harbor), and who are hungry for revenge. This is especially true for aviator Dick Best (Ed Skein- Alita: Battle Angel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), and Wade McClusky (Luke Evans- Beauty and the Beast (2017), Fast & Furious 6). Through the intertwining of these two threads, the story of Midway is told. There is also a strong supporting cast made up of Dennis Quaid as William ‘Bull’ Halsey, Mandy Moore as Ann Best, Aaron Eckhart as Jimmy Doolittle, and Nick Jonas as Bruno Gaido.
While this is clearly told from the American point of view, like We Were Soldiers, and Letters from Iwo Jima before it, Midway tries to present a sympathetic view of the Japanese side of the conflict instead of simply making them the “bad guys” of the film. This provides more depth to the screenplay by Wes Tooke, which allows the character arc for Dick Best, especially, to be more meaningful. Midway is a solid enough effort from director Roland Emmerich who tends to be a director bent on spectacle over substance, especially as it relates to disasters on a grand scale (Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day (both of them), White House Down).
With The Patriot, he found a strong cast with Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, and Tom Wilkinson, that could ground the more fantastical visuals Emmerich leans towards, to help present an entertaining tale that seemed to show he was capable of something more substantial. The Patriot, while playing loose with historical fact, did move audiences emotionally, especially when Mel Gibson was poised and ready to take his revenge. The British were the clear bad guys in that film, and very little was done to make them sympathetic. Midway improves on this imbalance, which is progress.
With Midway, Emmerich takes a further step away from spectacle and towards substance, which is positive, but retains too much of his visual flourishes and desire to make an event picture, for Midway to be grouped alongside the great World War II films of the last twenty years like Saving Private Ryan, or even Hacksaw Ridge. Of course, Midway probably isn’t trying to be, and so the comparison is unfair. Just being better than Michael Bay’s offering of Pearl Harbor is probably good enough.
Midway is not great, but it is a solid tale of what the U.S. Navy was up against in World War II, and the bravery that helped turn the tide of the war. For a world seeing nothing but bad news every time it turns on the television, Midway can maybe bring a sense of hope of what can be accomplished when Americans roll up their sleeves, put aside their differences, and refuse to be defeated. World War II revealed that character in what Tom Brokaw has dubbed “The Greatest Generation”, and maybe just the glimpse of it here in Midway can inspire another one, even if there are better cinematic expressions of it to be found in other films on World War II.