Written by Wes Tooke, Midway’s inciting incident and first major action sequence is the attack on Pearl Harbor. Emmerich takes us onto the ships being assaulted by Japanese dive bombers, onto the coast where the sailors’ families huddle inside for safety, and high into the skies with fighter pilots rush to intervene.
The grim toll of December 7, 1941 is captured in PG-13-level horror, which means little onscreen violence, brief blood, but plenty of fire and bodies lying lifeless as well as one dramatic shot of a once handsome officer burnt beyond recognition. The grief and rage experienced by the survivors will drive all that follows, as Midway explores its titular battle by bounding between a number of decorated sailors, soldiers, pilots, and officers.Tooke ambitiously tries to reconstruct the six months between Pearl Harbor and Midway through stories both personal and political. The story roughly centers on hotshot Navy pilot Lieutenant Dick Best (Ed Skrein), whose never-say-die attitude makes him admired and feared by those who fly with him.
But Midway focuses on arguably too many storylines, taking us into the secret conferences, code-cracking offices, and tense war rooms of the officers to understand the strategy, intel, and obstacles the American forces faced. The film also invited us into the bowels of aircraft carriers, the bellies of submarines, and the cockpits of planes to understand what all this was like for the men in the heat of battle.
There’s even an attempt to dip into the motivations and strategies of enemy combatants Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) and Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano), though this effort feels half-hearted as Midway presents much of the carnage the Japanese forces caused, and abruptly tries to rewrite history to credit Americans with inventing the kamikaze mission.
However, the pacing of all this exposition happens so swiftly that the emotion of a beat is often lost in the perpetual drum of information and visual stimulus. Basically, just when you might feel the anticipation of a conflict or the tension of a could-be catastrophe, the sequence is over.
To be delicate about spoilers, I’ll give you some vague examples. An admiral is furious about the presumption of a talented but risk-taking pilot. It seems a fight is brewing between the two, but in the very next scene, the flyboy and his crew fly away without incident. Later, a flight crew is forced to bail out from a soon-to-crash plane, not knowing if they’ll land in enemy territory or not.
As these men exchanged intense stares before leaping out of a plummeting plane, I felt my heart hammering in my chest. The jungle was dark below them, its threats unknown! But once they’ve all jumped, the sequence ends. We don’t follow them down to their unknown fates. Instead, Emmerich cuts away to something else, because there are so many stories to tell. Thus, threads are cut short, roughly knotted, or left abandoned and dangling.In this vein, some of these real-life heroes feel cheated their due. This cast is an embarrassment of riches: Patrick Wilson as Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton, a bookish and tireless intelligence officer dedicated to cracking codes that could save American lives; Woody Harrelson as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, a firm-jawed leader looking to do the best he can with what remains of the Navy fleet following the attack on Pearl Harbor; Aaron Eckhart as Army bomber squadron leader Jimmy Doolittle, who spearheads a dangerous mission to strike back at the Japanese on their own turf; and even Nick Jonas as naval radioman Bruno Gaido, who shows no fear in the face of certain death.
But with rare exceptions, these countless characters barely get their time to shine, and for others, they only shine. Many of them only exist for a flourish of valor or string jawed exposition delivery, or they only get a brief scene or two with their character being tough or scared (but ultimately brave) before being killed off. Emmerich is relying more on the audience’s patriotism than he is empathy borne from character development or storytelling to land the tragedy of these moments.
Making matters more muddled is a reliance on CG and jarring action edits. Green screen is used too much throughout Midway, from creating backdrops of Washington, D.C., and Pearl Harbor, to filling out the seas and skies with ships and planes. The flagrant flatness of this imagery scratches at our suspension of disbelief, even though we know these are real places and real events.
Beyond this, the heavy reliance on CGI seems to have pushes Emmerich to a place of ignoring common film language. Repeatedly, these sequences break the 180-degree rule, meaning they leap the line of action, making unclear where we are from one shot to the next. So, who is shooting who or which pilot’s plane is in trouble can be frustratingly unclear, especially when the heroes are wearing uniforms, and air masks that cover half their faces, and are subjected to an edit that allows only a few frames of reaction before cutting to some far-flung point-of-view.
There are, however, moments where Midway is terrific. To their credit, the ensemble cast brings an earnest machismo, which seems carefully resurrected from Golden Age movies of tough-talking men and fast-talking dames. Many of their accents are suitably heavy-handed for this nostalgic appeal, like Dennis Quaid, whose admiral grumbles as if his larynx has been keelhauled through gravel.English actor Ed Skrein seems to have snatched his bouncy yet butch New Jersey accent from Bobby Cannavale, who has a Bogart ruggedness. Meanwhile, Nick Jonas lays on a Brooklyn accent thicker than the smear of cream cheese on the borough’s bagels. All this works for the sense of drama Emmerich is brewing, giving an oomph of grandiosity to the average man.
Much to my surprise, Jonas is the film’s MVP. In a sea of actors who delivering stern expressions or unapologetic bravado, his Bruno Gaido stands out, immediately unique and intriguing. As a machinist, Bruno doesn’t have a starched uniform or all the distinctive gear of an aviator. Wearing a button-down blue shirt with jeans, tattoos, a mustache, and a rolled cigarette perched above his ear, he seems like he could have just strolled out of a deli or a factory. Instantly, he seems at ease in any given situation. This proves a perfect setup for his big moment of bravery, but Midway gives him more. A monologue about the uncertainty of life allows some poetry in this war movie that too often is gunning hard for its final act instead of allowing us to understand the men taking us there. Then, finally, Bruno’s exit from the film is bold, brave, and feels like an act deserving an Emmerich movie of its own.