‘Midway’ Review: Roland Emmerich heads to the Pacific Theater

Lionsgate/Alan Markfield

Seen (mostly) through the eyes of Richard ‘Dick’ Best (Ed Skrein), a pilot aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise in the early days of World War II, Roland Emmerich’s Midway tracks the lead-up to and the execution of one of the most pivotal battles in the history of the Navy. We begin in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, where Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), a Navy intelligence officer who foresaw the attack but was ignored by Washington, is told by his outgoing superiors to make his case to the incoming Admiral of the Pacific Fleet, no matter how much noise he must make in order to be heard. That man is Chester W. Nimitz (a white-haired Woody Harrelson), who, to Layton’s surprise, seems receptive and eager to hear his suggestions and predictions, which are founded upon the readings of a group of basement-dwelling code-breakers. They’re in agreement: the Japanese are planning another attack, one that will dwarf the size of Pearl Harbor, and Layton believes that it’s going to be the airfields at Midway that they’ll hit next.

As such, the Enterprise, an aircraft carrier commanded by Vice Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey (Dennis Quaid), which has seen some conflict in the form of minor raids and scouting missions, and the rest of the fleet are recalled from their orders and put into position. Their goal is to catch the Japanese fleet by surprise, and hopefully do enough damage to them that they’ll be knocked flat on their asses. Sure enough, the opposing commanders are overly arrogant enough to believe that the Americans aren’t gutsy enough to go for it, and, well, we all know how that turned out for them. Meanwhile, Best has to deal with two sources of ennui: the deaths of his friends, some accidental, some killed in combat; and being named “Dick Best” in a movie coming out in the Year of our Lord 2019 (I’m joking, guys). It all leads up to a relatively thrilling battle during the finale, though you’ll probably be confused given just how many times this movie feints an ending before actually getting there.

Screenwriter Wes Tooke, best known for his television work on shows like Jean-Claude Van Johnson and Colony, really struggles to pull all of these different threads together into a cohesive and succinct narrative, and it occasionally seems like he’s just penning the Wikipedia page rather than trying to craft a narrative. Worse, Tooke feels content to follow in the footsteps of other writers, even when considering how many films have been made about the same (or similar) subject matter. A lengthy segue into the exploits of Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) and his raids on Tokyo will be familiar to viewers who’ve watched Pearl Harbor at any point in the last decade, though the focus on the efforts of the Chinese men and women who, despite the adversity they faced from their occupiers, managed to get him and his men to safety is somewhat interesting, at least. But for a movie about the Battle of Midway, Midway only really focuses on that specific event for the last fourth of its 140-minute runtime. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by the hyper-focused war movies of recent years (Dunkirk comes to mind), but the Cliffs Notes approach to the start of the Pacific Theater is generally unhelpful.

His character work also kneecaps any scenes between the action as well, as important figures on either side of the conflict are reduced down to well-worn genre cliches, though that often enough gives the reliable B-movie cast a chance to fill the holes in their writing. Midway definitely has some thoughts about what women should be up to while the men are conducting the business of war — either worrying about their husbands or offering to make them sandwiches in moments of internal strife — and the actors that Emmerich has hired to portray them are hung out to dry. It’s not all bad in practice, though. Harrelson, Wilson and Quaid all come off well enough in their scenes, the latter so much so that it’s a bummer when a bad case of shingles puts him out of action for the actual battle itself (trust me, had I known that three-quarters of Quaid’s dialogue would see him bitching about a rash on his swollen, muscle-stacked neck, I would have bought my ticket a week and a half ago). Skrein struggles with the Brooklyn accent he’s stuck with here, but he’s got enough charisma to inspire real confidence in his skills as a leading man in the future, as opposed to the heavies that he’s been pushed into portraying.

But, after all, this is a Roland Emmerich movie, and if I’m ever not at least somewhat excited by the man’s appetite for destruction and the skilled construction of his action sequences, please rip open my shirt and start chest compressions because my heart has probably stopped. Though handicapped by its budget and occasionally rough effects work, Midway often offers satisfactory thrills when you’re in the cockpit of a dive-bomber alongside Skrein and company. Given that that’s probably the reason you’re paying to see this film, it’s worth the price of admission to see the wild dogfighting that occurs in the skies above the Pacific, as our heroes avoid both the enemy Zeros and shell after shell of anti-aircraft ordnance. The dive-bombing sequences, in particular, are stressful and exciting in a way that only Emmerich can make it so (imagine how envious George Lucas must be right now). If anything, I’m hoping that the moderate thrills of Midway and the skill on display here inspires Peter Jackson to finally get that capital together and make his Dam-Busters remake.