Film Review: Midway

midway 2019 movie poster one sheetThe Battle of Midway was a major turning point in World War II. Prior to the December, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the US had a distinctly isolationist stance, merely watching the chaos of Hitler’s Germany invading country after country in Europe and Japan attacking all of its neighbors. One of the first scenes in the new film Midway has Japanese Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) warning American Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) that an American oil embargo, when Japan relied on US oil, would be a dangerous response to its imperial ambitions. Weeks later President Roosevelt imposed just that, seizing all Japanese assets in the United States in retaliation for the Japanese occupation of French Indo-China.

The Japanese did respond with its massive attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, a “day that shall live in infamy”. The next day the United States of America declared war on the Japanese and formally entered World War II. “I fear all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Yamamoto famously uttered on that news reaching Japan.

The Pearl Harbor attack had decimated the Navy fleet, changing the balance of naval power in the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese continued its offensive throughout the South Pacific, attempting to isolate Australia as it gained additional territory. The Battle of Wake Island, almost immediately after Pearl Harbor, was a decisive victory for the Japanese. Four months later, The Battle of the Coral Sea again demonstrated Japanese domination of the seas. US forces were disheartened and disillusioned.

Later that summer the brilliant Edwin Layton, now head of Pacific Fleet Signal Intelligence for the Navy, became convinced that the Japanese would attack tiny Midway Island next. Their purpose: to establish a waypoint for subsequent attacks on the US mainland. Problem was, no one in the Navy believed him enough to send any ships. The Navy had cracked Japanese encrypted signals indicating an imminent attack on “A.F.”, but what was AF? Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) challenged Layton to figure it out and he did in a most ingenious fashion. Turns out “AF” was indeed Midway, and the US Navy secretly sailed north of the island to lay in wait for the Japanese attack.

Quite a history lesson, but you can’t really understand the film Midway if you don’t understand the historical significance of the battle. Is the film accurate? Yes, as far as I can tell, it does a good job of telling the story of the battle and its context in the overall war in a dramatic and entertaining fashion. Unfortunately, however, it’s not a good movie. The problems with Midway revolve around the performances and the overuse of obvious green screen technology.

Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) from MIDWAY
Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), from “Midway”

There’s the usual cast of dozens of important characters as is common for war films, though the movie is centered on the stories of Lt. Cmdr. Layton and hotshot Navy pilot Lieutenant Dick Best (Ed Skrein). Additionally Vice Admiral William Halsey (Dennis Quaid), Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance (Jake Weber), aviators Lt. Comm. Wade McClusky (Luke Evans), Lt. Comm. Eugene Lindsey (Darren Criss) and Lt. Comm. Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) have important roles both in the film and story. Also notable are cryptographer Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown) and aviation machinist Mate Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas). Female characters? Minority roles? Not in this movie.

The core problem with Midway is that the acting is atrocious. Across the entire cast. Directing is Roland Emmerich, best known for White House Down, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. None of which are great movies, but all of which tug on all the right patriotic strings to ensure box office success. It’s not just the poor performances, however, because viewers have to suffer through plenty of banal and insipid dialog too, courtesy of writer Wes Tooke. His previous experience? No movies. None. Just episodes of the sci-fi series Colony.

If that’s not enough, there are many scenes where it’s obvious that a green screen is being utilized to inject a dramatic backdrop, a problem that pulls you completely out of the story. Viewers laughed at the cheesy effects – and daft dialog – in our screening.

After the extraordinary WWII movie Dunkirk and the powerful They Shall Not Be Forgotten, it’s disappointing to have such an important war story be told so poorly by Emmerich and Tooke. It’s just not a good film. Might it be historically significant and worthwhile as a dramatized history lesson for people unfamiliar with World War II? Perhaps. But there are also moments when it feels more like a made-for-TV History Channel movie too, which perhaps is where it should have landed.

Dad at the Movies Note: This is a pretty benign war movie as the genre goes, so it’s appropriate for teens interested in history or ready for a dose of the harsh and mortal consequences of warfare. Not an appropriate subject for anyone younger, however.

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