Midway works as a touching tribute to those who turned the tide in the Pacific, though it's hamstrung by an underwhelming script.
It's easy to look at Midway as the Pearl Harbor of director Roland Emmerich's filmography. Much like his contemporary Michael Bay, Emmerich's made a career out of primarily helming major studio tentpoles like Independence Day, Godzilla, and White House Down. Now, he's turning his attention to the World War II genre, bringing the true story of the Battle of Midway to life for the big screen. With the film coming out in theaters over Veterans Day weekend, it's clear the intention here was to craft a rousing picture about the real heroes who fought, and in that sense, it's mostly successful. Midway works as a touching tribute to those who turned the tide in the Pacific, though it's hamstrung by an underwhelming script.
Midway picks up on December 7, 1941, the day Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. With America reeling from the tragedy and now actively engaged in World War II, the country's navy works diligently to hold their place in the Pacific and strike back against their enemies. Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton (Patrick Wilson) and his intelligence team deduce the Japanese are planning another offensive, this time targeting Midway. Basing their strategy off this information, the U.S. Navy looks to deliver a crushing blow, sending some of their best men like Dick Best (Ed Skrein) to partake in the battle that could determine America's fate.
One of the most impressive aspects of Midway is that it's very respectful of both sides in the conflict. Obviously, the American soldiers are portrayed as the heroes in this story, but their Japanese counterparts are never reduced to tasteless caricatures of one-dimensional villains. It's clear Emmerich and his team have a deep admiration for all of the brave men who were at Midway, making the film's narrative more well-rounded than some might initially thought. Emmerich also does a good job of maintaining a consistent tone, never losing sight of the gravity of the situation. There are moments of levity, but mostly feel organic and don't distract from the bigger picture. Midway has the look and feel of an old school war drama.
At the same time, Midway is letdown by Wes Tooke's screenplay, which is heavily reliant on well-versed tropes and stock characters. An argument can be made the film's ensemble is perhaps too stacked, as the script is over-stuffed with players, many of whom don't have anything all that substantial to do other than dutifully handle military briefings and/or battle sequences. Even those who are positioned as Midway's main characters, like Skrein's Dick Best, are stuck with conventional dialogue and arcs, which prevents them from leaving a noticeable impact on viewers. To be fair, the film's star-studded cast, which also includes the likes of Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart, and Nick Jonas, are solid in their roles and honor the real people they're portraying, but the parts are still thinly written. Emmerich was definitely trying to recognize as many of the Midway combatants as possible, but that approach doesn't fully work for a traditional narrative film.
Emmerich has always excelled at staging action, so it isn't any surprise he thrives in that area again. Midway's set pieces benefit greatly from modern filmmaking techniques and visual effects, with daring aerial dogfights, tense bombing raids, and more highlighting the tremendous lengths gone to during the war. The recreation of the Battle of Midway itself is very impressive, although the third act does drag on a bit and overstays its welcome. At nearly 2.5 hours, Midway probably could have been improved with another pass in editing, tightening some things up so it had a proper, riveting climax. These pacing issues are slightly exacerbated by the aforementioned script shortcomings, since it's difficult to get fully invested in the characters (outside a superficial sense of patriotic pride).
In the thick of awards season, Midway is the rare World War II film that likely won't garner any attention on the Oscar circuit. And with several of this year's main contenders either expanding or on the horizon, Midway is a difficult one to recommend for that reason. This isn't a must-see that's going to redefine its genre, but those who are in the mood for an uplifting, if standard, commemoration of real heroes will probably find something to enjoy here. Even if Midway doesn't become a breakout hit, it should find its target niche and have a solid run.
Midway is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 138 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sequences of war violence and related images, language and smoking.
- Midway (2019) release date: Nov 08, 2019