“Midway,” the true story of one of World War II’s most decisive naval battles, features many of Roland Emmerich’s directorial strengths, but also a variety of his worst tendencies.
Here we get to see the story unfold as the Japanese Navy plans an assault on Midway directly after Pearl Harbor. It’s a harrowing tale about how the American Navy, completely out-manned and out-gunned, were able to turn the tide of the war by surprising the Japanese Navy, ambushing them during their planned attack.
“Midway” is chock-full of air battles as World War II planes dive bomb aircraft carriers over the Pacific. The action scenes, always an Emmerich strong suit, are visually stunning and audibly astounding. He’s a strong action director especially when a movie calls for multiple large-scale battle sequences.
When US Navy planes are descending on Japanese aircraft carriers while anti-aircraft rounds explode everywhere, it’s quite intense. The scenes highlight how inefficient the US planes were fighting the Japanese fleet.
The planes and ships are manned by real-life characters who lived through the battle. Lt. Richard Best (Ed Skrein) is a hotshot pilot who flies every mission like it’s his last. Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) is a smart naval intelligence officer who cracks the Japanese plans. Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) is the man the US government brings in after the tragedy of Pearl Harbor. Vice Admiral William Halsey (Dennis Quaid) is the gruff-talking no-nonsense aircraft carrier commander. There are plenty of other characters, all of which the screenplay never allows to develop.
Emmerich’s characters and their interactions with each other always lack a certain human element that could push a war movie like “Midway” into the “Saving Private Ryan” tier. His screenplays are always so focused on packing in as much action as possible that the people become forgotten.
These were real people suffering real tragedies, but when they die or succeed in this movie it’s difficult to remember or care about them within the context of the film. Patriotism only goes so far. At some point we need to understand these characters.
Take, for example, Lt. Richard Best. His defining trait is his cockiness. That’s it. Lt. Best is heralded as one the only pilot on Navy history to strike more than one aircraft carrier in the same day. So, it’s sad when he comes across as a cliched cartoon character rather than a full-fledged war hero who existed.
“Midway” bounces from one battle to the next with characters blurting out stilted dialogue that lacks substance or caring. The heroes who fought and died are written like hackneyed tropes that we’ve seen in a dozen war movies.
It’s a shame that Emmerich dismisses the humanity for calamity. He’s so into explosions and death and bullets that he forgets about the people who made it all possible.