‘We need to throw a punch,” someone says after the catastrophe of Pearl Harbor in 1941. One such punch landed in 1942 on Tokyo residents who had been led to believe that the American Navy was permanently crippled just five months prior; they were surprised to discover bombs dropping on their houses courtesy of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s squadron. An even bigger punch was the battle of Midway Island in June of 1942, a glorious U.S. victory retold with bravado and pumped-up verve in Roland Emmerich’s Midway.
Emmerich is the Independence Day guy, and that semi-okay film is still the best one he’s ever done. Midway reminds us that there are two types of war films: the kind that seeks to capture the feel of war in all its desperate horror, and the My Dad movies. My father, a Navy Seabee in the Pacific Theater in 1944–45, loved every film that portrayed war as a great adventure and took me to see every one made in that mode, such as the 1976 Midway. Dad would, I think, not appreciate the hurtful, desperate tone of most of today’s war movies. He just wanted to see the Japs get kicked in the teeth. Why not look on the bright side of it all? We won, didn’t we?
Emmerich’s Midway is not a film for me, though. As iron-browed men fiercely shake off one hideous event after another, barely pausing when their brothers get crushed or incinerated before their eyes, mouthing nothing but the let’s-get-’em slogans of Lee Marvin or Chuck Norris, I kept thinking: Surely it can’t have been that much fun. HBO’s The Pacific was far more reality-grounded, hence far more powerful, respecting the courage and skill on the one hand but also acknowledging the devastation on the other. Midway is more of a shoot-’em-up, a video game.
At the center of the action is the British actor Ed Skrein, whose cinder-block jaw and iron chin suggest a newspaper caricature of a rough-and-ready flyboy. Skrein plays Dick Best, a dive bomber who sank at least one Japanese carrier (possibly two, as the movie has it) as the U.S. Navy scored perhaps the greatest naval victory in its history. Emmerich restages Midway with a blizzard of cheap-looking CGI effects that, along with the trite dialogue and one-note performances, create a general sense of fakery that harks back to an era of shallow blockbuster entertainment.
VIEW GALLERY: Battle of Midway
The film takes us all the way back to the attack on Pearl Harbor as seen through the eyes of an intelligence officer, Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who personifies the many errors of forecasting across multiple agencies and who is determined to out-guess the Japanese at the next stage. Woody Harrelson checks in as Chester Nimitz, the commander of the Pacific Fleet: “I don’t envy the new commander. [Beat] It’s me, isn’t it.” The movie is clarifying about how important directors are in steering their actors: If you thought Harrelson incapable of being dull, Emmerich is here to prove you wrong. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Harrelson having so little impact before, and his white wig looks silly.
Dennis Quaid, who plays Admiral Bull Halsey (who missed the battle because he was sent to Hawaii with a case of shingles) is so comically rip-roaring and rootin’-tootin’ that he might as well have researched the part by studying Yosemite Sam. As Doolittle, who after bombing Tokyo was forced to land in Japanese-occupied China and sneak his way out, Aaron Eckhart offers no depth whatsoever. As fellow flyboys, Luke Evans and Nick Jonas generate lots of cocky energy in the background.
Everything was on the line at Midway, but in Midway you never get the feeling that the outcome could ever have been in doubt. True, the toughness and resilience of these men was their most notable quality, but Emmerich’s actors don’t play men, they play animatronic G.I. Joe dolls. Cast your eye on a documentary about bomber pilots, such as HBO’s recent The Cold Blue, and it’s hard to find much merit in Emmerich’s style — frantic, breezy, shallow. Emmerich fills the frame with planes and flak and fireballs, yet the CGI just looks like . . . CGI. None of it has any visual, emotional, or thematic impact. The only documentary aspect of Midway is a couple of glimpses of one notable documentarian: John Ford (Geoffrey Blake), who was present to film scenes of everyday life on the naval base when the action began. Ford later won an Oscar for his one-reel film The Battle of Midway. If I were Roland Emmerich, I think I would avoid giving anyone a reason to compare me with John Ford.