Hollywood has made more than its share of movies about World War II, with varying degrees of success. The very best honor the valor and sacrifice of the soldiers while acknowledging the horrors of war.
One limitation has been the technical shortcomings of truly depicting the scale, scope, and destruction of the war. “Midway” pulls out all the stops of modern filmmaking to take us right into the heart of the carnage and spectacle of the Battle of Midway, one of the largest naval battles in history.
Unfortunately, it kinda fumbles the more noble parts of war movies and the result is a mixed bag that winds up being a net positive thanks to the stunning visuals.
Helmed by Hollywood’s master of subtlety, Roland Emmerich (best known for over-the-top disaster flicks like “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012”), “Midway” and its large cast of famous faces take us to the most pivotal point in the War of the Pacific.
Rocked by the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy is left reeling and outgunned by the powerful Japanese fleet. There are a lot of moving pieces as Emmerich and screenwriter Wes Tooke attempt to cast a wide net to tell as full of a story as possible.
Unfortunately, there’s not a strong narrative thread to tie it all together and we spend most of the movie bouncing around in search of an exacting editor.
“Midway” is at its best when it sticks with the just-the-facts retelling of the battle, the most compelling segment being in the war room where Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson in an epic hairpiece), Vice Admiral “Bull” Halsey (Dennis Quaid) and intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) do their best to outwit the cunning Japanese admirals.
The biggest weight pulling down this movie is the anvil Emmerich chose to build the emotional heart of the movie around. Ed Skrein plays Lt. Dick Best, a real-life dive bomber pilot with the remarkable distinction of crippling two Japanese aircraft carriers in a single battle.
Unfortunately, Skrein plays Best as a charmless jerk, as if he watched “Top Gun” and felt Maverick should have been way cockier and exceedingly less likable. And this is the guy we spend the most time within this movie. Poor Mandy Moore, who plays his wife, and Luke Evans, who plays his superior officer, they’re left trying to make lemonade out of lemons for most of the film.
But once we’re in the skies over the Pacific Ocean, all of that fades away as Emmerich, an action specialist, flexes his cinematic muscle and brings us right into the middle of all the chaos, sound and fury of this massive battle. It’s one of the few times in history something has actually happened that looks like it belongs in a Roland Emmerich movie.
If all you take away from “Midway” is how terrible and awesome this battle truly was, then I would consider it a success, albeit a heavily qualified one.
“Midway” is rated PG-13 for sequences of war violence and related images, language and smoking.