Film review: Midway scores a knockout blow

In November 1942, Winston Churchill told Parliament that Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s brilliant victory at El Alamein was “not the end — it is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Five months earlier, the US fought and won one of the most stunning naval battles of all time near Midway Island, a victory that — along with the Guadalcanal campaign — very much turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Japanese empire.

This Veteran’s Day weekend, cinemas around the country retell the story in Midway, a war epic that encompasses the first seven months of the Pacific War, offering brief glimpses of the two catalysts that brought the US and Japanese navies to Midway Island, Pearl Harbor and the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo five months later. The film carefully steps through those preludes to the “fair fight,” as Admiral Bull Halsey (Dennis Quaid) calls it, in which the Americans outfoxed and outfought the Japanese and broke their power in the Pacific.

Midway dispenses with the cheesiness seen in other war films of late, taking a little more of its cues from Dunkirk than Pearl Harbor. It became fashionable to hate on Michael Bay’s film, which was a better film than it got credited for being, but Midway‘s focus on the battle and the historical figures involved make this a better film. In fact, this edition of Midway seems superior to the 1976 version of Midway, which suffered from subplot overload and seemed more paint-by-numbers than the new film.

Midway does borrow from its 1976 predecessor as well as the excellent Tora! Tora! Tora! in presenting the Japanese side of the battle in a fair and balanced manner. There are certainly hints of brutality and atrocities, especially in China after the Doolittle raid, so it’s not a whitewash of Japanese war crimes. However, it does treat the figures involved with more historical nuance, which allows audiences to get a grasp of the tensions between the Japanese army and navy, and within the latter’s top leadership as well. That makes Midway a more interesting picture, heightening the drama rather than feeling as though the balance was artificially imposed.

The film does intertwine a few personal subplots into the mix, but without the sense that the battle is a subplot of a personal-relationships story. It helps that those are tied to actual historical figures from the battle, as well as the personal subplots mainly hinging on the pressure that the war created on the Americans to come up with a victory — and to keep the Japanese from raiding the West Coast. These mainly involve the characters of Richard Best (Ed Skrein, Deadpool), the only American pilot known to have hit two aircraft carriers in one day, and intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson, Watchmen), whose work made victory at Midway possible.

None of this detracts from the story of the battle itself, and neither do the film’s special effects — which are amazing and at times spectacular. It’s easy for story to get lost in CGI, but Midway never tips over into just another CGI film. The special effects in Midway give it a sense of realism and of scale, the latter of which was one of Dunkirk‘s few failings. The stuntwork and CGI never appear to be in service to themselves but only in service to the story, with perhaps one brief exception near the end where the effect called attention to itself.

The cast is a collection of young stars and grizzled veterans who pull together admirably (pardon the pun), but most of the work is done by Skrein, Wilson, Mandy Moore as Ann Best, and Etsushi Toyokawa as Yamamoto. Nick Jonas gives a surprisingly good performance in the smaller role of Bruno Gaido. Woody Harrelson and Dennis Quaid do good work in rather rote roles as Nimitz and Halsey, while everyone else brings three dimensions to two-dimensional parts. The main character is the battle itself, and the choice to focus on that rather than character-driven melodrama means the cast has less to do — but what they do have to do, they do well.

Roland Emmerich’s direction of Midway is surprisingly effective and realistic. He’s best known for cheesy fun like Independence Day and just plain limburger with 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, both of which were CGI-fests with minimal stories and silly characters wrapped around them (a formula which worked very well in Independence Day). His last foray into history, The Patriot, was basically a jingoistic-fun Braveheart Comes to America while making accuracy a very low priority. This time, however, Emmerich doesn’t make any of those mistakes, relying on the history and the battle to provide authentic drama. It’s clear Emmerich took this seriously, and as a result, Midway comes out feeling like a film destined to be a top-shelf war classic.

Given its excellence as well as its grand scale, Midway gets a 5 on the Hot Air scale:

Midway is rated PG-13, which seems surprising given some of the graphic and realistic violence depicted in the film, especially after the Pearl Harbor and Doolittle Raid sequences. Most teenagers will have already seen worse, I suspect, but I don’t think I’d take my 11-year-old granddaughter to see it, at least not without preparing her for some of the scenes.