Starring: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Tadanobu Asano, Woody Harrelson
The history of World War II is one of my great passions in life. As an American who had several members of his extended family fight and die in the conflict, I take great honor in studying and honoring the legacy of those who died to defeat the Axis powers. As such, I love film and art about the war. It’s not surprising the conflict has inspired the art of dozens of the greatest films ever made, given how many great artists served in the military at the time. From films made immediately after the war like Sands of Iwo Jima, They Were Expendible, and The Best Years of Our Lives, to recent movies like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, there’s no shortage of great art about the lives of men who fought and died in the greatest tragedy in human history. 75 years later, that war still inspires modern artists to retell the stories.
Violence/Scary Images: PG-13 violence and warfighting, characters are shot and bleed, characters die in obscured explosions, characters drown, a horrifically burnt body is shown
Language/Crude Humor: Consistent language throughout, including one f***, and several instances of b****, s***, and a**
Sexual Content: None
Other Negative Content: Themes of vengence, conquest, and hatred
Positive Content: Themes of valor, survival, bravery, and determination
One of my favorite books I’ve ever read is Ira Peck’s 1976 book Battle of Midway. I swiped it from my father’s collection of paperback history books in early high school when I was obsessed with World War II and military history. No other book I’ve read on the topic of the Pacific theater has enthralled me as much as this brief history of the first year of the Pacific Theater of the war. The book itemized the history of the battle in incredible detail, listing important details about the motivations for the war, the size of the combatant’s fleets, which ships were present, and how every manuver and dogfight in the conflict changed the course of the war in real time.
For those who haven’t read up on this particular battle, the Battle of Midway was the turning point in the Pacific Theater where the United States dealt a blow to the Japanese navy by radically diminishing its surface fleet in one fell swoop via the destruction of four of its nine operational aircraft carriers. At the time, America only had three functional aircraft carriers to project our airpower and support naval operations in the Pacific. Such a crushing victory, though costly to the American Navy with the loss of one aircraft carrier and dozens of torpedo bombers and pilots, effectively ended the Japanese Empire’s march across the Pacific and marked the last time they would forward their advance. From then on, the United States Navy would begin its slow march of island hopping to the Japanese mainland until August of 1945.
Given how much of this information I’ve retained after the better part of a decade, it’s not surprising a big budget Hollywood war movie based on some of the defining battles of the Pacific Theater would catch my attention. What also caught my attention was it was being directed by Rolland Emmerich. The famous director of Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot, Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and White House Down isn’t regularly admired as one of Hollywood’s better creative minds. For the most part, he’s dismissed among critics as a populist schlockmeister peddling dumb action movies to the masses who watch Transformers movies. That being said, I don’t hate the guy. I find a handful of his movies to be genuinely entertaining, if preachy. We can’t forget the Independence Day was one of the largest studio movies of the past few decades and a lot of people are still quite fond of it.
His newest film Midway is one that definitely carries the identity of being a Rolland Emmerich movie. It’s a massive, CGI laden extravaganza with silly over the top action, a huge ensemble cast of characters, and tons of silly populist themes of average people and weirdos being ignored down by THE GOVERNMENT while working class guts and following your instincts is what it takes to save the day.
If I’m being honest, I’d say this is one of his better films. It’s not great, and there’s a bunch we can nitpick about its portrayal of historical events and how it handles narrative structure, but if I saw this movie out of context on TV, I’d probably go so far as to say it’s pretty dang good. I’m not sure if I’m totally happy with some of these horrific and tragic events being played off as action schlock, but in all honesty, I wouldn’t say it’s like the movie is trying to be transgressive. Does every war movie need to be a borderline horror film like Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge?
War is terrible. As my father once brilliantly told me, “All great war stories are anti-war stories.” That said, for all intents and purposes this is an old school 90’s-style cathartic action movie about a small group of military men trying to turn the tide of an asymetrical war againts an imperialistic Japan. Maybe that keeps it from attaining greatness, but there’s nothing offensive about the movie being what it is.
As a movie, I’d still say it’s somewhat underwritten. It tries to cover a large amount of history from December 1941 to June 1942, including the Pearl Harbor attack, the first counter attacks on the Marshall Islands, the Dolittle Raid, the Battle of the Coral Sea, and finally the Battle of Midway. When Michael Bay made his terrible Pearl Harbor film, it covered half of this amount of content with an even longer runtime. There’s no way to cover this much history without strategic use of a meat cleaver. Even so, there’s a ton of downtime between these battles for the characters to talk about intel, train, and talk about their feelings and anxieties. As a result, a lot of the conflicts and historical events are boiled down to cliches.
Most of these characters are the same stock Hollywood archtypes Emmerich has been disabusing his entire career, and they’re just as silly now as they were the first dozen times. The brash, take-no-nonsense hothead ripped straight out of Top Gun is nothing new. Same with the crazy low-level bureaucrat who knows the truth nobody else will believe. Given that most of these characters are based on real people, it’s likely these characterizations are underselling the real life personalities and events for the sake of stock movie drama.
Important historical events like the sinking of the USS Lexington and USS Yorktown are alluded to offscreen despite the movie emphasizing just how important those events are supposed to be. You could craft entire career-defining action setpieces based on these two horrific events alone, and they’re ignored. This looseness is what ultimately keeps the movie from any sort of greatness. It gets some amazing nerdy details right, but the broadstrokes are mishandled. Several battles didn’t play out the way the way they are depicted, especially the dive bombing moments late in the film. I can’t speak for the accuracy of everything. I leave that to more historically minded critics like History Buffs to handle in full. You can nitpick something like this to death and honestly, it gets more right than wrong.
This extends to its handling of what could’ve been its most mishandled element: The depiction of the Japanese. It’s quite respectful in its depiction of the Empire of the Red Sun. If you’re like me, a millennial drowning in anime, you’d be forgiven for forgetting just how cruel the Japanese government’s war-crimes were. Try reading The Rape of Nanking sometime if you still doubt the total depravity of human kind. The movie does an excellent job balancing the humanity of the average Japanese soldier with the abundant cruelty of their government and their objectives. They even throw in some interesting details like the strife between the different branches of the Japanese military fighting for domination and preference from the Emperor and Admiral Yamamoto’s skepticism about winning a war against the United States.
Those small details of the film ended up being some of my favorite elements. My favorite part of the entire film was a five minute cameo of the legendary Hollywood director John Ford who, in real life, just so happened to be filming on Midway Island as the Japanese began their attack. He famously edited his footage into the short documentary The Battle of Midway during his service to the military. Stuff like that is enthralling and fun as a fan of history, and it makes an otherwise messy, bloated, and cliche film shine in its stronger moments. I could go on, but honestly Midway was a lot of fun. It’s good, respectable, and workmanlike work from a large group of Hollywood’s biggest talents. I’m not sure how this would play to someone who isn’t totally interested in the historical material, although given its low Rotten Tomatoes score, I’d assume it wouldn’t be as fondly received by others. Still, if its opening weekend gross, beating out films like Doctor Sleep and Last Christmas, is any indication, there’s a market for this film that will embrace it.
The Bottom Line